The Real Backstory — John Cassidy in The New Yorker.
The Trump-Iran story continues to develop in alarming ways. On Thursday, reports that Western governments believe Iranian military forces mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian passenger jet, killing a hundred and seventy-six passengers and crew members, produced a predictably divided reaction. “Innocent civilians are now dead because they were caught in the middle of an unnecessary and unwanted military tit for tat,” Pete Buttigieg, the Democratic Presidential candidate, said, on Twitter, immediately drawing cries of outrage from Trump supporters who insisted that Iran was entirely responsible. Iran’s government dismissed the reports as disinformation. But, if it does turn out that the Iranian military made a terrible blunder amid the frightening escalation in long-running tensions between Tehran and the Trump Administration, it will be ever more imperative to get a full account, not only of that blunder but also of the escalation.
On that subject, more disturbing details are emerging by the day. The picture we are getting is of the Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, and Vice-President Mike Pence both egging on an impetuous President to launch the January 2nd drone attack that killed the Iranian military commander Qassem Suleimani at Baghdad International Airport. None of Trump’s other senior political or military advisers, meanwhile, appear to have urged restraint, despite the near-certainty that the move would inflame the entire Middle East and provoke reprisals. Any deliberative policymaking process appears to have been replaced by a combination of belligerence, toadyism, and saluting the Commander-in-Chief.
In the aftermath of Suleimani’s death, members of the Trump Administration claimed that Suleimani, who held great sway over Iran’s regular and irregular forces, was plotting an imminent attack that could have killed hundreds of American service members. Pompeo said, “We had deep intelligence indicating there was active plotting to put American lives at risk.” Trump told reporters at the White House on Thursday, “We did it because they were looking to blow up our embassy.”
The Administration didn’t present any evidence to back up these assertions. On Wednesday, when it finally briefed Republican legislators about the rationale for the Suleimani killing, two senators—Mike Lee, of Utah, and Rand Paul, of Kentucky—walked out of the meeting and publicly trashed the material that had been presented. “I didn’t learn anything in the hearing that I hadn’t seen in a newspaper already,” Paul told reporters. “None of it was overwhelming that X was going to happen.” Lee was even more scathing. Outraged by suggestions from the briefers that Republican senators would be “emboldening Iran” if they even debated the wisdom of further U.S. military actions, Lee called the session “probably the worst briefing I have seen, at least on a military issue, in the nine years I’ve served in the United States Senate.”
Meanwhile, Pence fell back on an old evasive tactic: claiming that the Administration did have real and convincing intelligence to justify the missile strike, but saying that it was too sensitive to be revealed, even in a private briefing on Capitol Hill. “We’re simply not able to share with every member of the House and Senate the intelligence that supported the President’s decision to take out Qassem Suleimani,” Pence told Fox News. “I can assure your viewers that there was—there was a threat of an imminent attack.”
Detailed reports from a number of different media outlets, as well as statements by Iraqi officials, tell a very different story. Just two days after the strike, the Times’ Rukmini Callimachi, in a Twitter thread, cited sources, “including two US officials who had intelligence briefings after the strike on Suleimani,” who said the evidence of an imminent attack was “razor thin.” In the Times itself, a tick-tock account of the decision to kill Suleimani quoted a U.S. official who described the Iranian’s visit to Damascus and Baghdad over the New Year as “business as usual.” Last weekend, Adel Abdul Mahdi, the Prime Minister of Iraq, told the parliament in Baghdad that Suleimani was scheduled to meet him on the day he was assassinated, adding that the general was bringing a response to efforts to mediate the showdown between Riyadh and Tehran. “He came to deliver me a message from Iran responding to the message we delivered from Saudi Arabia to Iran,” Mahdi said.
Pompeo subsequently mocked this claim, saying, “We’ve heard these same lies before.” The fact that Suleimani was met at the Baghdad airport by the head of the pro-Iranian militias inside Iraq, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who was also killed by the missile attack, suggests that he may have had other reasons for his visit. But, eight days later, it remains true that the Trump Administration hasn’t provided any evidence that a large-scale attack was imminent. By the time Suleimani arrived in the Iraqi capital, the violent protests outside the American Embassy had ended, and Iraqi forces had re-secured the heavily fortified Green Zone, within which the Embassy is located.
Also, more details are emerging about the roles played by Pompeo and Pence in the decision to assassinate Suleimani. Pompeo and Pence “were two of the most hawkish voices arguing for a response to Iranian aggression, according to administration officials,” the Times reported, a couple of days after Suleimani’s death. “Mr. Pence’s office helped run herd on meetings and conference calls held by officials in the run-up to the strike.”
On Sunday, the Washington Post, citing a senior U.S official, reported that “Pompeo first spoke with Trump about killing Suleimani months ago … but neither the president nor Pentagon officials were willing to countenance such an operation.” On Thursday, CNN’s Nicole Gaouette and Jamie Gangel reported that “Pompeo was a driving force behind President Donald Trump’s decision to kill” the Iranian general. The CNN story said that Pompeo, who was the director of the Central Intelligence Agency under Trump before he moved to the State Department, viewed Suleimani as the mastermind of myriad operations targeting Americans and U.S interests. It also quoted an unnamed source close to Pompeo, who recalled the Secretary of State telling friends, “I will not retire from public service until Suleimani is off the battlefield.”
We are also learning more about the roles that other senior members of the Administration played in the process that led to the drone attack on Suleimani, including Gina Haspel, the current director of the C.I.A. “In the days before General Suleimani’s death, Ms. Haspel had advised Mr. Trump that the threat the Iranian general presented was greater than the threat of Iran’s response if he was killed,” the Times reported on Wednesday. “Indeed, Ms. Haspel had predicted the most likely response would be a missile strike from Iran to bases where American troops were deployed, the very situation that appeared to be playing out on Tuesday afternoon.”
On Thursday, the Wall Street Journal, in yet another lengthy account of the Administration’s decision-making, reported that all of Trump’s top advisers, including “new Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley and new national security adviser Robert O’Brien … backed the president’s decision to kill the top Iranian military commander and moved swiftly to carry it out. The new team was cohesive and less inclined than its predecessors to push back against the president’s wishes, according to administration officials and others consulted by the White House.”
Not that Trump needed much encouragement, it seems. “In the five days prior to launching a strike that killed Iran’s most important military leader, Donald Trump roamed the halls of Mar-a-Lago, his private resort in Florida, and started dropping hints to close associates and club-goers that something huge was coming,” the Daily Beast reported, quoting unnamed people who had been at Trump’s resort over the New Year. “He kept saying, ‘You’ll see,’ one of the sources recalled, describing a conversation with Trump days before Thursday’s strike.” We did see, of course, and the reverberations are far from over.
Tucker Carlson Is Still A Jerk — Frank Bruni in the New York Times.
Suddenly you’re digging him. At least a little bit. I know, I’ve seen the tweets, read the commentary, heard the chatter, detected the barely suppressed cheer: Hurrah for Tucker Carlson. If only we had more brave, principled Republicans like him.
Right out of the gate, he protested President Trump’s decision to kill Qassim Suleimani, the Iranian military commander, noting that it didn’t square with the president’s determination not to get bogged down in the Middle East and warning of the possibility and horror of full-blown war. Your pulse quickened. You perked up.
He sounded that same alarm on his next show and the show after that. Every night at 8 p.m., he worried about the bellicose itch of our leaders. When all around him on Fox News were playing their usual roles (indeed, his usual role) as masseurs for the president’s tender ego, he administered slaps, hard ones, the kind that leave angry red handprints. Ouch — and don’t stop.
You rejoiced. It’s one thing when Democrats challenge what looks like a rush to war by a Republican president. It’s another when typically fawning members of his own party do.
And while Carlson was hardly alone in his rebellion — three House Republicans voted with Democrats to check the president’s war-waging authority and, over in the Senate, Mike Lee and Rand Paul raised a dissident ruckus — no one else had his ardor, his articulateness, his megaphone.
Carlson to the rescue!
The fascination with him is itself fascinating, for many reasons. Can you recall a modern president before Trump whose moods and movements could be reflected and predicted simply by watching one news organization and, for that matter, just a few of its offerings? In lieu of a normally functioning White House communications department or a press secretary who holds actual press briefings (what a thought!), we have “Fox & Friends” in the morning and Carlson’s and Sean Hannity’s shows in the evening.
They don’t chronicle this presidency. They shape it, not just in terms of the volume of their applause for Trump, who craves the loudest possible clapping, but in terms of actual interactions. Carlson — like Hannity and another Fox fixture, Lou Dobbs — has in fact advised him behind the scenes.
Hence the rapt reaction to Carlson’s antiwar jeremiads. They may well matter.
Also, those of us who regard Trump as a menace can be so eager — too eager — to welcome newcomers to our shores that we overlook the polluted seas they sailed to get there. In a recent moment on the ABC talk show “The View” that was awkward at best, Joy Behar announced excitedly that the prominent white nationalist Richard Spencer had just disavowed Trump because of Iran.
Carlson, mind you, has not disavowed Trump. In fact he performed semantic acrobatics to denounce America’s military maneuvers against Iran without precisely blaming Trump. Those slaps I mentioned landed more forcefully on the administration in general than on the man-child at its apex, who is, in Carlson’s tortured rendition, a gullible marionette, his strings pulled by inveterate, habitual warmongers. If these profiteering elites would just let Trump be Trump and train his wrath on Mexicans instead of Iranians, a great presidency would get its groove back.
During his Tuesday show, Carlson performed political jujitsu and held two of the president’s principal Democratic adversaries responsible for exacerbated tensions with Iran. Referring to the Washington establishment and singling out Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, he said, “These are people who have been basically advocating for a kind of war against Iran for an awfully long time.”
“It’s infuriating,” he added. “It’s because of Schumer and Pelosi and people like them that we got into Iraq in the first place.”
Come again? A Republican president, George W. Bush, urged and oversaw the invasion of Iraq, and while Schumer authorized it, Pelosi voted against it, as did many more Democrats than Republicans.
And Carlson’s portrait of Trump as puppet contradicts reporting from The Times and other news organizations that some Pentagon officials were stunned when the president ordered the strike against Suleimani, a measure more extreme than other options presented to him.
Carlson remains true to Carlson: selective with facts, slanted with truths and — this is the most important part — committed to his vision of America as a land imperiled by nefarious Democrats and the dark-skinned invaders they would open the gates to if not for sentries like him and Trump.
As Matt Gertz of Media Matters perceptively noted, Carlson’s antiwar stance “is not a break from his past support for Trump or his channeling of white nationalist tropes, but a direct a result of both.” Gertz explained that in the mind-set of Carlson and many of his fans on the far right, energy spent on missions in another hemisphere is energy not spent on our southern border. It’s no accident that, in regard to the Middle East, he and Spencer are on the same page.
Following Suleimani’s death, Carlson asked his audience, “Why are we continuing to ignore the decline of our own country in favor of jumping into another quagmire?”
Carlson is defined not by a bold willingness to check Trump’s excesses or ugliest impulses but by his indulgence — no, his fervent encouragement — of those impulses as they pertain to racism and immigration. On those fronts, Carlson himself grows ever uglier, as my colleague Farhad Manjoo and others have noted. It’s why many sponsors have defected from Carlson’s show.
Carlson repeatedly uses variations of the word “invasion” to characterize migrants from Central America. He insists that “white supremacy” is a fiction, a hoax. He has used language that buys into and promotes “replacement theory” — a far-right fixation on the idea that declining birthrates among whites will cause a nonwhite takeover — and recently castigated immigrants for litter along the Potomac River.
Just last month he gave precious time on his show to an obscure Republican congressional candidate in North Carolina, Pete D’Abrosca, who has warned white Americans that they’re “being replaced by third world peasants.” D’Abrosca has also bragged of his support from the “groyper army,” a far-right group with more than a whiff of anti-Semitism.
Is Carlson himself abetting hatred of Jews? In a rare point of agreement, some Jews and white nationalists believe so, pointing to an on-air rant last month in which he bashed a Jewish billionaire, Paul Singer, by comparing him unfavorably with Henry Ford, who owned a newspaper that ran a lengthy series alleging a Jewish plot to dominate the world.
“The Fox News host goes full anti-Semite,” wrote Tablet, a Jewish publication, while Mike Enoch, who rallied with the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Va., said on his podcast, “If you didn’t catch the German shepherd whistles where he praised Henry Ford and then went into a diatribe of a Jewish financier, you know, I don’t know what universe you’re existing in.”
So that’s some of what Carlson was up to just before he turned his attention to Iran.
How warm and fuzzy are you feeling toward him now?
In other words, he’s Pat Buchanan without the charm.
Doonesbury — Having the vapors.