Reposted from “Letters from an American,” historian Heather Cox Richardson
This entire day felt like an exercise in gas lighting. From this morning’s statement by the president to the announcement tonight that Vice President Mike Pence has indefinitely postponed a Monday speech on Iran policy, we seem to be operating in a fog.
While we have come to expect disinformation from Trump and the leadership of the GOP, and certainly from the Fox News Channel, I was surprised by today’s media coverage of McConnell and impeachment, which gave the impression that the Senate trial was about to start on McConnell’s terms. This confused me because I had not heard that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had decided to transmit the articles of impeachment to the Senate. An evening of digging says that, despite media suggestions, it has not happened.
This morning Trump gave a very short—less than ten minute—statement to the press about hostilities with Iran. It was a very weird speech. Trump came out to stand before a group of generals, who stood expressionless as he spoke. He seemed breathless and subdued, and slurred a number of words.
The speech itself was exactly what we have come to expect from him. He claimed victory over Iran, said that he had defeated ISIS, listed the terrorism he laid at the door of Iran, called on NATO—the North Atlantic Treaty Organization put together after WWII to push back on Soviet expansion and continued recently to hold the line against an aggressive Russia, an organization he has worked hard to undermine—to take a bigger role in the Middle East, and, stunningly, blamed President Barack Obama for funding Iranian terrorists. He also announced new sanctions on Iran. After the speech, political reporter Joan Walsh tweeted “’Slurring,’ ‘Adderall’ and #TrumpSpeech are trending. Sounds like it went really well.”
(An aside here. If I hear any more assertions that Obama sent planes full of American cash to Iran my head is going to explode. Obama did not pay Iran $150 billion for the 2015 “Iran Deal,” or JCPOA, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. In fact, the JCPOA, approved by China, France, Germany, Russia, UK, and the US, involved the release of billions of Iran’s own assets, frozen here and elsewhere around the world after the 1979 Islamic Revolution that overthrew the U.S.-backed Shah, in exchange for the end of Iran’s nuclear weapon development. After Iran paid its debts with the money, it had between $32 billion and $50 billion left. The deal itself is linked in tonight’s notes, as well as couple of explanatory articles. Now back to our regularly scheduled programming….)
Today Congress heard the evidence that Qassem Soleimani presented an “imminent threat” to the United States, thus giving Trump legal authority to attack him without notice to Congress until after the fact. It did not go well. Democrats told reporters that the intelligence was “sophomoric, and utterly unconvincing,” which puts the attack on shaky legal grounds.
Representative John Rutherford (R-FL) called Democrats who rejected the claim that there was evidence of an imminent attack “Ayatollah sympathizers” who are “spreading propaganda that divides our nation and strengthens our enemies.” An ayatollah is a high-ranking Muslim cleric, but is associated in American with the Ayatollah Khomeini, the revolutionary leader at the center of the 1979 Iranian Revolution that overthrew the Shah and led to the taking of 52 American hostages. Rutherford was accusing Democrats of supporting America’s enemies.
Meanwhile, Fox News Channel personality Sean Hannity gushed about the intelligence evidence about Soleimani, and falsely told viewers that he had always distinguished between the 99% of wonderful US intelligence officers and the 1% he called the Deep State (in fact he has been attacking the Intelligence Community wholesale since the beginning of the investigation into Russia’s attack on the 2016 election, at least in part because, of course, he was one of Trump fixer Michael Cohen’s three clients, and was beside himself when the FBI raided Cohen’s offices and made that discovery).
But it was not just Democrats who were unimpressed with the evidence. Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah seemed incensed by the briefing, calling it “insulting” and “probably the worst briefing I’ve seen, at least on a military issue, in the nine years I’ve served in the United States Senate.” He went on to note, angrily, that “What I found so distressing is one of the messages was do not discuss, do not debate appropriateness of further military intervention against Iran.” If Trump needed a justification for war, Lee claimed Trump’s people said, “I’m sure we could think of something.” Lee says he will vote for a resolution limiting Trump’s power to make war without Congress’s approval.
With the fevered expectation of war with Iran quelled for the present, the media turned back to the ongoing impeachment saga, and reported that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had the votes to hold the Senate trial without admitting the witnesses from whom a strong majority of Americans– including 2 out of 3 Republicans– want to hear testimony.
Lost in these stories was that Pelosi still has not turned over the articles of impeachment, and clearly sees no reason to do so when McConnell has already said that he will guarantee that Trump will be acquitted. The Senate cannot start a trial until it gets the articles of impeachment, and the House has complete authority to run the process of impeachment any way it sees fit, no matter how much Republicans squawk about it.
GOP leaders are desperate to get the trial over with and impeachment buried. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, a staunch Trump supporter now, although he loathed Trump early on, claims to be about to submit a Senate resolution demanding that Pelosi send over the articles immediately, claiming that withholding the articles “is a flagrant violation of the separation of powers expressly outlined in the bicameral impeachment process under the Constitution of the United States.” This is a complete fiction, designed to gin up the Republican base. The Constitution gives the House complete control over how it handles impeachment. “If we don’t get the articles this week,” Graham told the Fox News Channel, “then we need to take matters into our own hands and change the rules,” a revealing statement about the determination of Republican leaders to defend Trump, no matter the cost to our system of government.
But much has changed since the House passed the articles of impeachment on December 18, 2019, and it seems to me unlikely the House will simply hand over the articles to McConnell to let him kill them.
Two blockbuster stories have made things look even worse for the president: newly released emails reveal that Trump himself directed the withholding of military aid to Ukraine immediately after his July 25 call with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky and that White House officials recognized the hold was illegal; and we have learned that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Defense Secretary Mark Esper, and National Security Advisor John Bolton spoke to Trump as a group to get him to lift the hold, telling him it was against American interests, and yet he still refused. With those stories in the backdrop, Bolton has volunteered to testify in a Senate trial if the Senate subpoenas him. Bolton is one of four key witnesses Senate Democrats want to hear from in a trial.
And now, hanging over even the Ukraine scandal, is that Trump came perilously close to getting us into a shooting war with Iran by assassinating their top military official on grounds that even members of his own party find unconvincing, only to back down and, after a brief, odd statement, go silent. As the president stumbles, we have no Director of National Intelligence, no Deputy Director, no Secretary of Homeland Security, no Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security, no Navy Secretary, and a badly gutted State Department.
He has gathered power into his own hands, and this week revealed just how dangerous those hands are.
See supporting Notes at the end of the original post.