WITH A RAIN OF BALLISTIC MISSILES at Iraq’s Ain al-Asad and Irbil air bases, President DONALD TRUMP became a wartime leader at the dawn of an election year, and the contours of his ever-changing presidency have again shifted.
FOR THE LAST THREE MONTHS, impeachment dominated every inch of the collective mind of Washington, and played an especially outsize role in the president’s mood and psyche. TRUMP is a president who relishes fights and chaos, and, despite his stated displeasure with the impeachment process, he seemed to enjoy striking back at his enemies with vitriol and lavishing praise on allies who took his side on live television.
BUT BEING THE LEADER OF A NATION AT OR ON THE BRINK OF WAR traditionally requires a different skillset — one that TRUMP has not yet shown he’s mastered. A president leading a war-weary nation into (or close to) conflict typically communicates clearly, measuredly and consistently about the what, why and how.
AMERICA IS AT THE BACK END of nearly two decades of watching a steady stream of dead bodies land on cargo planes at Dover Air Force Base, so the skepticism with which the country views armed military conflict is understandable. And communicating about why you’re sending troops overseas as Iran is sending missiles into air bases requires more than slagging your predecessors for what they didn’t do, cryptically tweeting at odd hours or suggesting Democrats in Congress are anti-American.
THINK WHAT YOU WANT ABOUT THEIR POLICIES OR POLITICS, but GEORGE W. BUSH and BARACK OBAMA took pains to communicate what they were doing and what they were trying to achieve when they took kinetic military action.
WAR, ALMOST DEFINITIONALLY, is a country’s effort to achieve an end through measured chaos. TRUMP’S entire presidency is an attempt to achieve multiple ends through chaos. It’s time to see how those blend.
LATE TUESDAY NIGHT, JAVAD ZARIF, Iran’s foreign minister, tweeted that his nation does not seek “escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression.” And TRUMP said this: “All is well! Missiles launched from Iran at two military bases located in Iraq. Assessment of casualties & damages taking place now. So far, so good! We have the most powerful and well equipped military anywhere in the world, by far! I will be making a statement tomorrow morning.”
PERHAPS HE’LL SEEK AN OFFRAMP. But as of Tuesday night, bombs were raining down on American bases, thousands of U.S troops are again heading to the Middle East, and we don’t know precisely what this administration is trying to achieve. More from Halley Toosi, Andrew Desiderio and Nancy Cook
CONGRESS is set to get a briefing from senior military officials about the killing of Qassem Soleimani today.
NYT’S PETER BAKER on A8, with a News Analysis bug: “A Strategy for the Mideast That Has Even Trump’s Allies Scratching Their Heads”: “If even the Pentagon does not know whether it is coming or going in Iraq, it might be hard to blame the rest of the world for being a little confused about President Trump’s strategy for the Middle East.
“As Iranian missiles fell on bases with American troops on Tuesday in retaliation for the drone strike last week that killed Iran’s most powerful general, the administration has scrambled to explain its mission and goals in the region amid a chaotic brew of conflicting statements, crossed signals and mixed messages.
“The president who promised to bring troops home from the Middle East is now dispatching more instead. The Pentagon sent a letter saying it was withdrawing from Iraq, only to disavow it as a mistake. The State Department talked about ‘de-escalation’ while Mr. Trump beat the war drums describing all the ways he would devastate Iran if it harmed more Americans. And even then, the president was forced to back off his threat to target Iranian cultural sites after his own defense secretary publicly said doing that was a war crime.
“Likewise, the administration’s explanation for authorizing last week’s strike has varied depending on the moment. At first, officials emphasized that Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the commander of Iran’s elite security and intelligence forces, was eliminated to prevent an ‘imminent’ attack that could take hundreds of American lives. But in the last day or so, Mr. Trump and others focused more on retribution for General Suleimani’s past attacks on Americans.” NYT
WAPO’S DAVID NAKAMURA and JOSH DAWSEY: “Inside the White House, two administration officials conceded that some of Trump’s messages over the weekend were unhelpful. The aides pointed to Trump’s threat, first issued on Twitter, that the United States military would target 52 Iranian sites, including cultural ones, if Tehran retaliated for Soleimani’s death.
“Pentagon officials had not analyzed potential cultural site targets before the president’s tweet, said one senior administration official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the geopolitical sensitivities.” WaPo
— NYT’S ANNIE KARNI and MAGGIE HABERMAN: “Suleimani’s Killing Creates New Uncertainty for Trump Campaign”: “[M]r. Trump’s decision to authorize the killing of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, which he has described to friends and allies as a necessary action he was forced to take, has opened up a more uncertain political reality as the president enters an election year. That uncertainty was on display Tuesday night when Iran fired missiles at American forces in Iraq, in its first act of retaliation. …
“[W]hether the strike will help the president win over more voters rests on factors largely outside Mr. Trump’s control. How Iran retaliates, and how voters who responded to his 2016 campaign message about ending ‘forever wars’ in the Middle East react to a potentially escalating conflict are the two most immediate questions. …
“In the days since the attack, Mr. Trump has soaked up praise from Republican senators and allies, and aides described him as very comfortable with his decision. Mr. Trump, who has been eager to bask again in the kind of praise he received after ordering the military to bomb Syrian government forces after they used chemical weapons in 2017, has enjoyed his victory lap. He even described in graphic detail to friends the attacks on the American Embassy in Baghdad that preceded the strike against General Suleimani.”
THE MARKETS REACT … FT: “Oil prices and global stock markets stabilised after an initial jolt of volatility in the hours after an Iranian missile strike against American forces in Iraq significantly escalated tensions in the Middle East. …
“The restraint in the Iranian comments after the event ‘certainly feeds into the interpretation that the attack was designed to play to the home crowd rather than simply the next stage in an intensifying conflict,’ said Richard McGuire, rates strategist at Rabobank.”
FIRST IN PLAYBOOK — Senate Minority Leader CHUCK SCHUMER and Sens. DICK DURBIN (D-Ill.) and JACK REED (D-R.I.) sent a letter to Defense Secretary MARK ESPER and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. MARK MILLEY asking them to provide Congress with regular briefings and documents about troop deployment plans related to the conflict in Iran. They also called on them to make clear to the chain of command that targeted strikes on cultural sites are unlawful. The letter
IRAN’S RETALIATION IN IRAQ is affecting Democrats’ plans to try to limit TRUMP’S ability to conduct military activity in the Middle East:
SARAH FERRIS, HEATHER CAYGLE and JOHN BRESNAHAN: “Top House Democrats’ plans to push a measure limiting the Trump administration’s war-making powers are in flux following an Iranian missile attack Tuesday on U.S. bases inside Iraq.
“The real prospect of rapidly intensifying conflict with Iran complicates the Democrats’ plan to repudiate President Donald Trump for a deadly drone attack on Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani last week without notifying Congress. House Democrats say they are likely to pause, if not abandon, their plans for a war powers resolution.
“‘This discussion started Sunday night. It’s now 48 hours, or less than 48 hours since,’ House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Tuesday night. ‘This is something that we have to consider seriously and thoughtfully and correctly and we’re going to do that.’
“‘We need to figure out what’s going on,’ added Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), one of the nation’s most prominent anti-war Democrats, when asked about plans for a war powers vote this week. ‘I think everyone expected some unfortunate retaliation,’ Lee said of Tuesday’s Iranian attacks. ‘It’s a spiral now, that unfortunately might get out of control. That’s what we don’t want to see.’” POLITICO
Good Wednesday morning. SPOTTED: Paul Ryan having lunch at Carlyle in Arlington on Tuesday.
NOW ON TO IMPEACHMENT … Senate Majority Leader MITCH MCCONNELL’S announcement Tuesday that he had enough votes to pass a Republican-only rules package to govern the impeachment process throws the spotlight back on Speaker NANCY PELOSI, who is still not saying when she plans to send over the articles.
IMPORTANT TO REMEMBER: The process McConnell has described doesn’t preclude witnesses, but also doesn’t commit to them. Witnesses would be put to a Senate vote.
HEATHER CAYGLE and SARAH FERRIS note that in a closed meeting Tuesday evening with Democrats, PELOSI “didn’t reveal a timeline for transmitting the articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump to the Senate.” Heather and Sarah’s story
PELOSI SENT A LETTER to Democrats that urged MCCONNELL to “publish” his impeachment rules so Democrats can “can see the arena in which we will be participating, appoint managers and transmit the articles to the Senate.”
HOUSE AND SENATE DEMOCRATS we spoke to Tuesday made it clear that they want the articles sent to the Senate soon, so the time is running out on this gambit.
— BEHIND THE SCENES: JOHN BRESNAHAN and BURGESS EVERETT: “McConnell’s win on impeachment trial procedure was months in the making”
THE UNFOLDING TRUMP STRATEGY — “Trump’s House warriors likely sidelined in Senate trial,” by Melanie Zanona and Anita Kumar: “GOP lawmakers like Reps. Mark Meadows, Jim Jordan and John Ratcliffe aren’t expected to serve on Trump’s official impeachment defense team, according to three people familiar with the situation, despite having played a key role defending the president during the House’s public impeachment hearings. …
“Instead, Trump’s top defenders are more likely to help out in a public relations capacity — including the media appearances that the TV-obsessed president covets — though the White House has made no final decision as it waits for lawmakers to set the timing and parameters of the trial.” POLITICO
NEW — MICHAEL BLOOMBERG’S campaign operation has been reaching out to K Street figures to try and hire operatives with Senate and House experience to do Capitol Hill outreach for his presidential campaign. Sources familiar with the process say they are looking to move fast and are willing to pay significantly more than typical campaign salaries.
ALSO IN IRAN … “Ukrainian airplane crashes near Iran’s capital, killing 176,” by AP’s Mohammad Nasiri, Nasser Karimi and Jon Gambrell in Shahedshahr, Iran: “A Ukrainian passenger jet carrying 176 people crashed on Wednesday, just minutes after taking off from the Iranian capital’s main airport, turning farmland on the outskirts of Tehran into fields of flaming debris and killing all on board.
“The crash of Ukraine International Airlines came hours after Iran launched a ballistic missile attack on Iraqi bases housing U.S. soldiers, but both Ukrainian and Iranian officials said they suspected a mechanical issue brought down the Boeing 737-800 aircraft.
“The plane carried 167 passengers and nine crew members from different nations. Ukraine’s foreign minister, Vadym Prystaiko, said that there were 82 Iranians, 63 Canadians and 11 Ukrainians on board — the Ukrainian nationals included two passengers and the nine crew. There were also 10 Swedish, four Afghan, three German and three British nationals.” AP
VALLEY TALK — “Don’t Tilt Scales Against Trump, Facebook Executive Warns,” by NYT’s Kevin Roose, Sheera Frenkel and Mike Isaac: “[A]ccording to a memo obtained by The New York Times, a longtime Facebook executive has told employees that the company had a moral duty not to tilt the scales against Mr. Trump as he seeks re-election.
“On Dec. 30, Andrew Bosworth, the head of Facebook’s virtual and augmented reality division, wrote on his internal Facebook page that, as a liberal, he found himself wanting to use the social network’s powerful platform against Mr. Trump. But citing the ‘Lord of the Rings’ franchise and the philosopher John Rawls, Mr. Bosworth said that doing so would eventually backfire.” NYT … Bosworth’s response
2020 WATCH …
— AD WARS: “Trump to drop $10 million on Super Bowl ad,” by Alex Isenstadt
— “Bloomberg under fire for skirting the debate stage,” by Christopher Cadelago and Sally Goldenberg in Richmond, Va.: “Mike Bloomberg is starting to take heat from Democratic rivals for running an imperial campaign: Using his personal fortune to finance an infinite stream of TV ads while refusing to engage his opponents and defend his record on a live debate stage. To that he says: Too bad.
“At a campaign stop here, the former New York mayor said he has no intention of trying to qualify for upcoming debates — even though he almost certainly could participate if he wanted to. It was his most definitive statement to date on a stance that has rankled his opponents, who chafe at his limitless war chest and feel he should have to endure the rigors of campaigning they do.
“Bloomberg insisted he’d like to debate if the rules allowed. But the billionaire, a latecomer to the Democratic primary, reasoned it is inappropriate for someone of his wealth to ask supporters for cash.” POLITICO
— “Warren deploys Castro in bid to get her mojo back,” by Alex Thompson in New York: “With an unusual flurry of national media appearances and the rollout of her highest profile endorsement to date — former presidential candidate Julián Castro — Elizabeth Warren is trying to give her campaign a jolt in the final weeks before the Iowa caucuses.
“For most of her presidential run, the Massachusetts senator had spurned Beltway-centric Sunday shows, mostly stayed away from the cable news circuit, and only occasionally went on national TV shows. But as her polling and fundraising has dipped in recent weeks, Warren has embarked on an energetic media tour, with interviews on NBC’s Meet the Press, CNN’s State of the Union, NBC’s Late Night with Seth Myers, ABC’s The View, and MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show — all since Sunday. She’ll keep up the circuit with an appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe Wednesday morning.
“The campaign simultaneously rolled out Castro’s endorsement on Monday with a web video that quickly earned millions of views, then a rally here before a thunderous audience of about 3,000 people, plus a large overflow crowd outside, at the Kings Theatre in Brooklyn.” POLITICO
TRUMP’S WEDNESDAY — The president will receive his intel briefing at 2:15 p.m.
WILD READ — “Inside Carlos Ghosn’s Great Escape: A Train, Planes and a Big Black Box,” by WSJ’s Nick Kostov in Beirut, David Gauthier-Villars in Istanbul, Sam Schechner in Paris and Miho Inada in Osaka: “After months of planning and millions of dollars in costs, Carlos Ghosn climbed into a large, black case with holes drilled in the bottom. He had just traveled by train 300 miles from his court-approved Tokyo home to Osaka, Japan.
“It was Sunday evening, Dec. 29, the moment of truth in a plan so audacious that some of its own organizers worried at times it wouldn’t work. A team of private security experts hired to spirit Mr. Ghosn out of Japan hadn’t done a dry run of their scheme to sneak the box containing the former auto executive past airport security….
“Ghosn’s decision to jump bail in Japan set in motion a 23-hour international caper with little modern precedent. The plot involved advance teams that scoped out vulnerable airports, human messengers and a predawn plane transfer on the tarmac of a nearly deserted airport in Istanbul.” WSJ
— HAPPENING TODAY: Ghosn is due to speak to journalists for the first time since his escape.
SCOOP … YAHOO’S JENNA MCLAUGHLIN: “Saudis warn of new destructive cyberattack that experts tie to Iran”: “Saudi authorities detected a new destructive cyberattack suspected of coming from Iran on Dec. 29, the same day the U.S. military struck targets controlled by Iranian-backed proxies in retaliation for a rocket attack that killed an American contractor the previous Friday.
“Officials in Riyadh, who nicknamed the malware ‘Dustman,’ did not directly attribute the malicious attack to Iran, according to a Saudi technical report obtained by Yahoo News. However, according to experts who reviewed the technical report and analyzed possible motivation and similarities to past attacks, Tehran is the most likely culprit.
“The ‘wiper’ attack, which was identified by the Saudi National Cybersecurity Authority, used malware to erase digital data belonging to unidentified targets in the Middle East.” Yahoo
CES LATEST — “Defying critics, Ivanka Trump draws applause at tech show,” by Reuters’ David Shepardson in Las Vegas
— “White House Favors a Light Touch in Regulating AI,” by Wired’s Will Knight: “The White House has issued principles for regulating the use of artificial intelligence that call for as little government interference as possible and offer only broad guidance to federal agencies. In fact, the principles might deter regulation of AI at a time when many think it is increasingly needed.
“Michael Kratsios, chief technology officer of the United States, is set to announce the principles on Wednesday at CES in Las Vegas. They arrive at a critical moment for the development of AI and for America’s position as the global standard bearer.” Wired … The White House memo
MEDIAWATCH — Protocol is staffing up with several new hires: Demian Bulwa as head of investigations and projects (previously at the San Francisco Chronicle); Kat Borgerding as audience engagement editor (previously at Recode/Vox); Tom Krazit as cloud computing reporter (previously at Mostly Cloudy); Karyne Levy as head of the copy desk (previously at Scribd); JP Mangalindan as a contributing editor (previously at Yahoo Finance); and Levi Sumagaysay as a Silicon Valley reporter (previously at The San Jose Mercury News).
— Magan Crane is joining Bloomberg as deputy politics editor. She previously was senior editor of digital politics at PBS NewsHour.
— Elizabeth Koh is joining the WSJ’s Seoul bureau to cover Samsung. She is currently a state government reporter at the Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times’ shared Tallahassee bureau.
Send tips to Eli Okun and Garrett Ross at email@example.com.
SPOTTED: Speaker Nancy Pelosi (who stopped by briefly), Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.), Maureen Dowd, Steve and Jean Case, Jonathan Capehart and Michelle Jaconi at the opening Tuesday night of Maialino Mare, a Danny Meyer restaurant in the Thompson Washington D.C. hotel.
SPOTTED at a party Tuesday night for Peter Bergen’s new book, “Trump and His Generals: The Cost of Chaos” ($19.69 on Amazon), hosted by Meena and Liaquat Ahamed: Tresha Mabile-Bergen, Norm Eisen, Gregory Craig, Steve Clemons, Kim Dozier, Vali Nasr, Sidney Blumenthal, Mark Mazzetti, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Adam Kushner, Henry Schuster, Maureen White, Michael Isikoff, Edward Luce and Niamh King, Max Boot, Margaret Carlson, Elizabeth Campbell, Nir Rosen, Joel Rayburn and Clare Lockhart, Luke Hartig, Katherine Bradley, Tom Carver, Kenneth Ballen, Joshua Geltzer, Meredith Hanley, Fuzz Hogan, and Thomas and Holly Espy.
TRANSITIONS — Curtis Dubay is now senior economist at the Chamber of Commerce overseeing its analysis of the U.S. and global economies. He previously was a senior economist at the American Bankers Association. … Dan Keniry is now head of federal government affairs at Anheuser-Busch. He previously was staff director of the House Budget Committee for ranking member Steve Womack (R-Ark.). …
… Max Sevillia is now VP of government relations, advocacy and community engagement at the Anti-Defamation League. He previously was director of external affairs for New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. … Evan Lukaske is now communications director for Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.). He previously was senior communications advisor and national press secretary for Gillibrand’s presidential campaign.
ENGAGED — Casey Murray, director at Shape Advocacy, and Dylan Cronin, an account executive at Advanced Energy Economy, got engaged Dec. 27 at Whistler Ski Resort in Canada.
BIRTHDAY OF THE DAY: Jane Lucas, counsel at Alston & Bird and a Trump White House alum. An interesting book she’s been reading: “After leaving the White House, I have a lot more time to read for pleasure, so I’m currently reading Willa Cather’s novel ‘O Pioneers!’ The book tells the story of a woman who homesteaded in Nebraska in the late 19th century. My family also homesteaded, and the book has given me a lot of insights into their experience, particularly the women in my family, and gives me extreme gratitude for how much easier our lives are today.” Playbook Q&A
BIRTHDAYS: Joyce Overboe (h/t Anna) … Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is 62 … Avra Siegel … Kim Jong Un is 36 … Heather Podesta (h/t Amy Weiss) … John Podesta (h/ts Tony Podesta) … Anita Dunn, managing director at SKDKnickerbocker … Jeannie Kedas, chief comms officer at First Look Media … Mary Jane Volk (h/ts Teresa Vilmain) … Amy McWethy (h/ts Jon Haber) … Charles Osgood is 87 … POLITICO’s Nirvi Shah … Israel Hernandez … David P. White is 48 … Adam Hechavarria … Buckley Carlson … María Peña … Caitlin Oakley, deputy assistant secretary in HHS’ public affairs office, is 3-0 (h/ts Meghan Dugan, John Twomey, Gary Beck, Judy Stecker and her ASPA colleagues) … former Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) is 92 … former Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-Kan.) is 44 … former Rep. Charlie Bass (R-N.H.) is 68 … former Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) is 59 … Dina Fraioli … Ross Schneiderman … Casey Stegall, Fox News correspondent in Dallas …
… David Chavern, president and CEO of the News Media Alliance … Andrew Bates, rapid response director for the Joe Biden campaign, is 33. He’s celebrating “by calling reporters who are trying to avoid him” (h/t the Biden for President comms team) … WSJ alum Elizabeth Holmes … Ted Leonsis is 63 … Jason Mehta is 37 … Elizabeth López-Sandoval, communications and special projects director for Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas) … James Reed … Kathryn Grant … Chris Tanner … Angelo Mathay … Rob Melick … Sally Smith … Chip Giller, founder of Grist … Scott Fairchild … James Quinn … Kevin Ryan is 53 … Emma Brown … former Ohio Gov. Bob Taft is 78 … Snapchat’s Russ Caditz-Peck … Amanda McTyre … R Street’s Andy Smarick … FIU’s Brian Van Hook is 42 … Andy Smarick (h/t Alice Lloyd) … Gul Jammas Hussain … Jake Bailey … Nicole Tieman … Deborah Mazol, COS for Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) … Michael Calvert … Sarah Wright … Laura Pinsky … Micah Honeycutt