With Mariana Alfaro

THE BIG IDEA: A toxic mix of U.S. government policies, under the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, directly contributed to Afghanistan’s descent into one of the world’s most corrupt countries.

U.S. leaders said publicly that they had no tolerance for corruption in Afghanistan, but that was one of several topics related to the war effort on which they systematically misled the public, according to a trove of confidential government interviews obtained by The Washington Post.

American representatives often looked the other way at egregious and brazen graft, so long as the offenders were considered allies. Congress appropriated vast sums of money, which was handed out with little oversight or recordkeeping. The ensuing greed and corruption undermined the legitimacy of the nascent government and helped make the ground more fertile for the Taliban’s resurgence.

“The basic assumption was that corruption is an Afghan problem and we are the solution. But there is one indispensable ingredient for corruption — money — and we were the ones who had the money,” said Barnett Rubin, a former senior State Department adviser and a New York University professor.

The adage is as true in Afghanistan as America: Follow the money.

“Our biggest single project, sadly and inadvertently, of course, may have been the development of mass corruption,” said Ryan Crocker, who twice served as the top U.S. diplomat in Kabul, in 2002 and again from 2011 to 2012. “Once it gets to the level I saw, when I was out there, it’s somewhere between unbelievably hard and outright impossible to fix it. … The corruption was so entrenched and so much a part of the lifestyle of the establishment writ broadly…”

Crocker told interviewers from the government that he felt “a sense of futility”: “I was struck by something [then-president Hamid] Karzai said and repeated a number of times during my tenure, which is that the West, led by the U.S., in his clear view, had a significant responsibility to bear for the whole corruption issue,” he explained. “I always thought Karzai had a point, that you just cannot put those amounts of money into a very fragile state and society, and not have it fuel corruption. … You just can’t.”

-- The comments from Crocker and Rubin are included among more than 2,000 pages of previously private notes from research conducted by U.S. government investigators. More than 400 people who played a direct role in the war, from generals to diplomats and aid workers, were questioned about what went wrong. The interviews were conducted by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction between 2014 and 2018 for a “Lessons Learned” project. A report outlined the conclusions in broad brushstrokes in 2016, but a lot of the most noteworthy material was held back. The Post has fought a three-year legal battle, which is ongoing, to get these documents out under the Freedom of Information Act so that the American people can see for themselves what’s been going on.

John Sopko, the head of the federal agency that conducted the interviews, acknowledged in an interview with Craig Whitlock that the records show “the American people have constantly been lied to.” Whitlock has written a six-part series dissecting all the documents. (You can start with Part One here.)

-- A key theme underlying many of the most candid interviews is that a short-term focus on maintaining security led to compromises that started small but became bigger and bigger. It’s a cautionary tale that can be cross-applied to a host of other challenges facing the United States.

Gert Berthold, a forensic accountant who served on a military task force in Afghanistan from 2010 to 2012, analyzed 3,000 Defense Department contracts worth $106 billion. He said they calculated that about 40 percent of the money ended up in the pockets of insurgents, criminal syndicates or corrupt Afghan officials. But former government ministers told them it was higher. Berthold said few U.S. officials wanted to hear about the evidence they uncovered: “No one wanted accountability,” he said. “If you’re going to do anti-corruption, someone has got to own it. From what I’ve seen, no one is willing to own it.”

Christopher Kolenda, a retired Army colonel who deployed to Afghanistan several times and advised three U.S. generals in charge of the war, said the Afghan government led by Karzai had “self-organized into a kleptocracy” by 2006. “I like to use a cancer analogy,” the colonel told his government interviewers. “Petty corruption is like skin cancer; there are ways to deal with it and you’ll probably be just fine. Corruption within the ministries, higher level, is like colon cancer; it’s worse, but if you catch it in time, you’re probably ok. Kleptocracy, however, is like brain cancer; it’s fatal.

-- A lot of important information is still being concealed by the government. While the agency has turned over previously unpublished notes and transcripts from 428 of more than 600 interviews that were conducted, these documents identify only 62 of the people who were interviewed by their names. The names of 366 others are blacked out. A decision by a federal judge is pending in response to a motion to disclose the other names. But The Post chose to publish what it has now, instead of waiting for the judge to rule on the rest, because these records could contribute to the civic discourse over President Trump’s negotiations with the Taliban and the debate over whether to withdraw the 13,000 U.S. troops who remain in Afghanistan, which has become a flashpoint in the 2020 campaign.

The Post attempted to contact for comment everyone whom it was able to identify as having given an interview as part of the project. (Their responses are compiled here.)

-- Here are five of the most striking quotes about corruption from people whose identities are still redacted in the interview summaries:

1. An unnamed senior U.S. diplomat said the early years were “a dark space” with “not much documentation” about who we were giving cash. “We had partnerships with all the wrong players,” this diplomat lamented during an interview in August 2015. “The U.S. is still standing shoulder-to-shoulder with these people, even through all these years. It’s a case of security trumping everything else.”

2. From another unnamed senior U.S. official: “Our money was empowering a lot of bad people. There was massive resentment among the Afghan people. And we were the most corrupt here, so had no credibility on the corruption issue.”

3. From a former National Security Council staffer: “In the beginning, the military kept saying that corruption was an unfortunate short-term side effect then toward the end the feeling was ‘Oh, my God, this could derail the whole thing.’”

4. An unnamed State Department official said that U.S. officials were “so desperate to have the alcoholics to the table, we kept pouring drinks, not knowing [or] considering we were killing them.” This person said that the Americans “had no red lines” for cutting off corrupt partners. “We didn't spend the money effectively and didn’t consider the implications,” this person told government interviewers. “We wanted to keep the country afloat, not to let the country be a safe haven for the Taliban and al Qaeda.”

5. An unidentified government contractor said his job was to distribute $3 million in taxpayer money each day for projects in an Afghan district roughly the size of a U.S. county. He recalled asking a visiting congressman whether the lawmaker could responsibly spend that kind of money back home: “He said hell no. ‘Well, sir, that’s what you just obligated us to spend and I’m doing it for communities that live in mud huts with no windows.’”

-- So often, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Chapter four of Whitlock’s six-part series is a narrative, as told through these interviews, of how Afghanistan became consumed by corruption: “About halfway into the 18-year war, Afghans stopped hiding how corrupt their country had become. Dark money sloshed all around. Afghanistan’s largest bank liquefied into a cesspool of fraud. Travelers lugged suitcases loaded with $1 million, or more, on flights leaving Kabul. … Karzai won reelection after cronies stuffed thousands of ballot boxes. He later admitted the CIA had delivered bags of cash to his office for years, calling it ‘nothing unusual.’ … According to the interviews, the CIA, the U.S. military, the State Department and other agencies used cash and lucrative contracts to win the allegiance of Afghan warlords in the fight against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. …

In 2002 and 2003, when Afghan tribal councils gathered to write a new constitution, the U.S. government gave ‘nice packages’ to delegates who supported Washington’s preferred stance on human rights and women’s rights, according to a U.S. official who served in Kabul at the time. ‘The perception that was started in that period: If you were going to vote for a position that [Washington] favored, you’d be stupid to not get a package for doing it,’ the unnamed official told government interviewers. By the time Afghanistan held parliamentary elections in 2005, that perception had hardened. Lawmakers realized their votes could be worth thousands of dollars to the Americans, even for legislation they would have backed anyway … ‘People would tell each other, so-and-so has just been to the U.S. Embassy and got this money. They said ‘ok now I need to go,’’ the U.S. official said. ‘So from the beginning, their experience with democracy was one in which money was deeply embedded.’”

On Aug. 20, 2009, Afghans went to the polls to choose a president. … Right away, reports surfaced of electoral fraud on an epic scale — ghost voting, official miscounting, ballot-box stuffing, plus violence and intimidation at the polls. Initial results showed Karzai, the incumbent, had won. But his opponents, and many independent observers, accused his side of trying to steal the election. A U.N.-backed panel investigated and determined Karzai had received about 1 million illegal votes, a quarter of all those cast. The outcome put Obama administration officials in a box. They had said corruption was intolerable but also had promised to respect Afghan sovereignty and not interfere with the election. Moreover, they did not want to completely alienate Karzai. If there was another vote, many saw him as the likely victor anyway. In the end, the Obama administration brokered a deal in which Karzai was declared the winner after he agreed to share some power with his main rival. …

Peter Galbraith, a Karzai critic who served as a deputy U.N. envoy to Afghanistan in 2009, was removed from his post after he complained that the United Nations was helping cover up the extent of the election fraud. An American, Galbraith told government interviewers that the U.S. government also stood by when Karzai appointed cronies to election boards and anti-corruption posts.”

It got worse in 2010: “Kabul Bank, the country’s biggest, nearly collapsed under the weight of $1 billion in fraudulent loans — an amount equal to one-twelfth of the country’s entire economic output the year before. The Afghan government engineered an emergency bailout to stem a run on the bank as angry crowds lined up to withdraw their savings. Investigators soon determined Kabul Bank had falsified its books to hide hundreds of millions of dollars in unsecured loans to politically connected business executives, including the president’s brother Mahmoud Karzai and the family of Fahim Khan, the warlord then serving as the country’s first vice president. ‘On a scale of one to 10, it was a 20 here,’ an unnamed U.S. Treasury Department official posted to Kabul as an Afghan government adviser told interviewers. ‘It had elements that you could put into a spy novel, and the connections between people who owned Kabul Bank and those who run the country.’ … 

“At first, in public and in private, the Obama administration leaned on Karzai to fully investigate the Kabul Bank scandal — not only to recover the stolen money but also to demonstrate to the Afghan people that no one was above the law. … For about a year after the scandal became public, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, led by then-Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, made the case a top priority and pressed Karzai to take action, three former officials told government interviewers. But they said the embassy backed off after Eikenberry was replaced by Ryan Crocker in July 2011. … Crocker, as well as U.S. military commanders and others in Washington, did not want to risk alienating Karzai, because they needed his support as tens of thousands of additional U.S. soldiers arrived in the war zone. They also said Crocker and his allies did not want Congress or international donors to use the bank scandal as an excuse to cut off aid to Kabul.”

-- I spent much of this weekend reviewing more than a thousand reader emails about the biggest storylines of the 2010s. There are so many thoughtful and interesting answers that I’m excited to highlight in the coming days. I’m grateful to everyone who responded, but I’m also struck by how few of you mentioned Afghanistan. It’s not just America’s longest war, but also perhaps its most forgotten while combat operations are still underway. Whatever your politics, the Afghanistan Papers are worthy of your time and attention. After all, those who don’t learn from the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them.

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WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING:

-- Paul Volcker, a hard-headed economic statesman who as chairman of the Federal Reserve from 1979 to 1987 shocked the U.S. economy out of a cycle of inflation and malaise and so set the stage for a generation of prosperity, died Dec. 8 at his home in Manhattan. He was 92. The cause was complications from prostate cancer, said his daughter, Janice Zima. “With influence that spanned five decades and seven presidents, Mr. Volcker left as deep an imprint on the U.S. economy and financial system as has anyone of his generation,” Neil Irwin writes in his obituary. “As a senior Treasury official in the 1960s and early ’70s, he advised President Richard M. Nixon on taking the United States off the gold standard. At the Fed, he was arguably the second-most-powerful person in the country. … He later counseled President Obama on his response to the 2008 financial crisis and proposed a key restriction on speculative activity by banks that would become known as the ‘Volcker Rule.’”

-- The White House and House Democrats are on the cusp of finalizing a new trade deal for North America, a major achievement for Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that comes even as Democrats prepare to impeach the president. “A key party to the talks, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, said Monday morning that there was a deal and he planned to meet with his executive committee Monday afternoon to discuss it,” Erica Werner and David Lynch report. “Support from the AFL-CIO, which opposes the existing North American Free Trade Agreement and blames it for destroying millions of good-paying manufacturing jobs, would likely ensure support from a majority of House Democrats if the deal is brought up for a vote. Backing from the AFL-CIO would also indicate that Democrats had succeeded in negotiating stronger enforcement mechanisms and protections for labor than existed in the agreement signed by Trump and the leaders of Mexico and Canada a year ago.”

THE CASCADING INVESTIGATIONS:

-- Rudy Giuliani pressed administration officials to dump Trump’s nominee for ambassador to Qatar and replace her with someone else in late 2018. Josh Dawsey, Rosalind S. Helderman, Tom Hamburger and Devlin Barrett scoop: “Trump had nominated a career Foreign Service officer to … a key post in a Middle Eastern country with tricky regional relationships, an important U.S. military installation and vast oil reserves. Giuliani, who has said he had held a cybersecurity contract with Qatar in 2017 and early 2018, proposed replacing her with someone he said would be a better fit — Scott W. Taylor, a Trump-supporting former congressman from Virginia defeated in his reelection bid in November 2018 …

“Scott Taylor, who wrote a 2015 book called ‘Trust Betrayed: Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and the Selling Out of America’s National Security,’ had … served as a security contractor for Hunt Oil in Yemen from 2008 to 2010 … Giuliani offered to promote Taylor as candidate for the post and help guide him through the process … During a night at a cigar bar in Friendship Heights in December and a lunch meeting the following day at the Trump hotel, Giuliani described a plan to promote Taylor for the job … Giuliani told Taylor that he had done work in Qatar, but it was unclear why he was interested in shaping the ambassador pick. In subsequent calls to administration officials, Giuliani argued that Taylor would be a better choice than [Mary Catherine Phee] … When asked about his advocacy for Taylor in a November interview, Giuliani laughed and ended the call. … Phee’s nomination expired when Congress adjourned last year and Trump has not renominated her.”

Two more scoops from their story:In several conversations in recent months, Attorney General William P. Barr has counseled Trump in general terms that Giuliani has become a liability and a problem for the administration, according to multiple people familiar with the conversations. In one discussion, the attorney general warned the president that he was not being well-served by his lawyer … Giuliani has assured the president that he is not in legal trouble … And Trump has so far resisted entreaties to distance himself from the former New York mayor, telling others that he appreciates Giuliani’s combative media appearances on his behalf … In recent weeks, prosecutors subpoenaed a consulting firm founded by former FBI director Louis J. Freeh, which hired Giuliani to write an August 2018 letter to Romanian officials calling for an amnesty for people prosecuted for corruption, a policy change that would have benefited a Freeh client…”

The bigger picture: Giuliani has taken on clients from Turkey to Venezuela to Romania to Ukraine since Trump took office. He’s said he doesn’t need to register as a foreign agent: “But since the start of the administration, his actions have caused persistent alarm among Trump’s advisers, who worry that it is often not clear who Giuliani is representing — the president, his private clients or his own foreign policy views — in his meetings at the White House and in foreign cities … In one meeting with a prominent Ukrainian political figure in early 2018, Giuliani was explicit that hiring him would provide a route to the president, according to a person in attendance. ‘It was just so clear what he was peddling. He was pushing for business, and his pitch was, "I’m close to the White House, I’m close to Trump. If you want to get in there, I’m your guy," ' the person said. In that case, the Ukrainian did not hire Giuliani.”

-- Giuliani's old friends worry that his legacy as New York's mayor will be forgotten because of his stint as Trump’s fixer. From the Times: “Working on a laptop at a restaurant table in the Trump International Hotel in Washington, he has bathed in the warm acclaim of friends and strangers who recognize him from his television advocacy. ‘I enjoyed the fact that people were coming by and tapping me on the back,’ Mr. Giuliani said. He was there so often, he said, that he set up a plaque. Rudolph W. Giuliani Attorney at law. ‘He doesn’t just like the spotlight,’ his estranged wife, Judith Giuliani, said in an interview. ‘He craves it, for validation’ … There are conflicting accounts of why Mr. Giuliani did not get the State Department position he campaigned for in 2016, and of whether anyone other than himself even thought it was a real possibility, but his years of lucrative consulting payments from foreign governments since leaving City Hall would certainly have made for a complicated Senate confirmation. … Anthony Carbonetti, a City Hall aide to Mr. Giuliani and a longtime friend, said he worried that what he saw as Mr. Giuliani’s groundbreaking years as New York mayor would be forgotten behind the sky-filling spectacle of Mr. Trump. ‘The fact that this is what he’ll be known for is painful,’ Mr. Carbonetti said. ‘His public persona has been dominated by his representation of the president for the last two years, so that has become the public perception of him. I don’t think anyone goes back in time.’”

-- The House Judiciary Committee may vote to advance articles of impeachment by the end of this week. From the Journal: The committee will hear today from a lawyer for the Intelligence Committee about the constitutional grounds for impeachment. “Democrats haven’t decided on what the articles of impeachment will be, a congressional aide working on the impeachment inquiry said Saturday. A report issued by Judiciary Committee Democrats on Saturday, echoing reports issued for the cases against Richard Nixon in 1974 and Bill Clinton in 1998, examined the Constitution’s impeachment provision to lay the groundwork for drafting articles of impeachment. Mr. Nadler, asked on NBC’s ‘Meet the Press’ how many articles of impeachment the committee would file, said: ‘I’m not ready to decide that.’ House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D., Calif.) on CBS’s ‘Face the Nation’ suggested he favored a more narrow approach to the articles of impeachment. He said that as a former prosecutor, his inclination is to target charges where there is ‘the strongest and most overwhelming evidence’ and ‘not try to charge everything, even though you could charge other things.’”

-- Joe Biden still doesn’t have a good answer: The former vice president insists that his son did nothing wrong by buckraking in Ukraine — but he also admits he has not dug into what Hunter Biden actually did for Burisma. “I don't know what he was doing. I know he was on the board. I found out he was on the board after he was on the board and that was it,” Biden told Axios for an interview that aired last night on HBO. Asked whether he wants to get to the bottom of it, Biden said, "No. Because I trust my son."

-- Meanwhile, speaking to NPR, Biden blamed his staff for not flagging potential conflict of interest concerns about his son’s work for Burisma. “Nobody warned me,” he said. “They should’ve told me.” In fact, the New Yorker reported earlier this year that at least one staffer raised the issue with Biden. And other stories have said that staffers were intimidated to broach the issue with the then-vice president.

-- The Justice Department’s inspector general is set to release his report today concluding the FBI was justified in opening an investigation into the Trump campaign's relationship with Russia. The report is also expected to detail numerous shortcomings in how the bureau conducted the investigation. In light of this, FBI’s Chris Wray is trying to steer the bureau away from politics. From the Journal: “Mr. Wray took over an agency buffeted by recriminations over those two politically charged investigations after Mr. Trump in spring 2017 fired the FBI’s former director, James Comey … Where Mr. Comey embraced a public persona, Mr. Wray has continued to maintain an unassuming and detail-oriented persona, bent on avoiding the spotlight and keeping the FBI out of the political fray as much as possible … Mr. Wray has quietly pursued some policy changes, including deciding not to run any investigations out of the offices of senior leadership at FBI headquarters, as the Clinton investigation largely was in 2016, and reinstituting annual ethics training, according to people familiar with the matter. Some current and former officials have wanted Mr. Wray to more publicly defend the FBI. But people close to him said he recognizes that a vociferous pushback could imperil his job at a time when his main goal is he wants to steady the agency.”

-- Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) peddled the debunked conspiracy theory that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election. Katie Shepherd reports: “In a fiery back-and-forth on NBC’s ‘Meet the Press’ on Sunday, [Cruz] declared that there is ‘considerable evidence’ that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election, echoing debunked claims recently spread by other GOP leaders. The show’s host, Chuck Todd, asked the senator if he believed Ukraine had attempted to sway the 2016 election. ‘I do,’ Cruz said. Todd’s eyes grew wide and he raised his eyebrows in surprise: ‘You do?’ … ‘Senator, this sort of strikes me as odd,’ Todd said. ‘Because, you went through a primary campaign with this president. He launched a birtherism campaign against you. He went after your faith. He threatened to, quote, ‘spill the beans’ about your wife. …Is it not possible that this president is capable of creating a false narrative about somebody to help him politically?’ he asked. ‘Except that’s not what happened,’ Cruz replied.”

-- As the impeachment inquiry moves forward, there is a push underway to raise money to help cover the legal bills of the career government witnesses who have gotten caught up in this donnybrook. Lisa Rein reports: “With the House hurtling toward a full chamber vote before Christmas, the diplomatic community is gearing up for Phase Two of potential testimony. The White House has announced that President Trump plans to bring forward ‘serious witnesses’ in his likely trial early next year in the Republican-led Senate. That could mean more questioning of witnesses from Senate Democrats, or cross-examination by Republicans — and with it more steep legal fees. ‘A few weeks ago I was hoping we wouldn’t need to raise more money,’ Eric Rubin, a former ambassador to Bulgaria who is now president of the American Foreign Service Association, told the group. ‘But as of now,’ Rubin said, ‘we have a very clear statement that the White House will call witnesses, and that includes our colleagues.’ … The group has raised more than $250,000 for a legal-defense fund for nine of the 17 witnesses who testified about whether Trump and the White House pressured Ukraine to investigate the president’s political opponents.”

-- Trump skipped the Kennedy Center Honors this weekend for the third year in a row. Roxanne Roberts reports: “On one hand, this is a bad thing: The president and first lady traditionally bring glamour and prestige to the annual celebration of American art and culture, highlighting the power of art to bring us together regardless of political differences and the importance of support and philanthropy. On the other hand, the absence of Trump — under threat of impeachment and quick to take offense — is a relief to almost all involved. Not that anyone will say it out loud, but the odds that someone (an honoree, a performer, an audience member) might say or do something political at this nonpartisan evening is, frankly, uncomfortably high.” 

-- Case in point: Kennedy Center honoree Linda Ronstadt threw shade at Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during the annual dinner for honorees at the State Department. Peggy McGlone reports: “Pompeo congratulated the singer and wondered aloud when he would be loved — a reference to the Ronstadt hit ‘When Will I Be Loved.’ According to Sam Greisman, son of actress Sally Field — another of the evening’s honorees — the singer responded, ‘Maybe when you stop enabling Donald Trump.’”

THE NEW WORLD ORDER: 

-- At least five people died and many more remain unaccounted for after a volcano erupted on an island off the coast of New Zealand. Allyson Chiu reports: “Fewer than 50 visitors were on or near White Island, which is also known as Whakaari, at the time of the eruption, and 23 people have been rescued so far, New Zealand Police Deputy Commissioner John Tims said a media briefing Monday night. Among the people transported to shore, many had burn injuries and a number were taken to area hospitals, Tims said. He confirmed that five people have died and said he didn’t know how many people are still unaccounted for, estimating that figure to be in the ‘double digits.’ Dangerous conditions have prevented police and rescue services from reaching the island, Tims said, citing experts who found that the area is unstable and said more eruptions could be possible.”

-- The World Anti-Doping Agency executive committee voted Monday to bar Russia from competing at the next two Olympic Games. Rick Maese reports: “The decision means Russia will have no formal presence at next year’s Summer Games or the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing. Similar to the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, Russians who have not been implicated in the country’s state-sponsored doping scheme will be allowed to compete in Tokyo as unaffiliated athletes. In PyeongChang, 168 Russians competed as ‘Olympic Athletes from Russia.’ After being banned from the 2018 Games, the country and its Russian Anti-Doping Agency were conditionally reinstated in September 2018, but Russian officials were caught earlier this year manipulating data from its Moscow anti-doping laboratory and misleading WADA investigators, prompting a new chapter in a years-long doping scheme that continues to roil the international sports community.”

-- Investigators in Florida and Saudi Arabia are digging deeper into the background of the Saudi aviation student who fatally shot three people and wounded eight others at a naval base in Pensacola, Fla. The FBI is investigating the incident as an act of terrorism. Devlin Barrett, Carol Morello and Hannah Knowles report: “Officials sought to reassure Pensacola residents that they knew of no ongoing threat to the area, saying that while investigators pursue a wide variety of interviews and evidence, there was only one gunman behind Friday’s violence. On the third day of the investigation into the attack at a base where the U.S. military trains pilots from foreign forces, details on what has been learned so far were sparse, tentative and sometimes contradictory. The gunman, a Royal Saudi Air Force member named Ahmed Mohammed al-Shamrani, was shot dead by a sheriff’s deputy responding to the rampage. Shamrani apparently left hints that he was motivated at least in part by his hatred of American foreign policy and military might. … Investigators say they believe Shamrani was the author of an anti-American screed posted on Twitter shortly before the shooting, according to a law enforcement official.”

-- Trump’s impulse to defend the Saudi regime after one of the kingdom's officers killed Americans has isolated him from members of his own party, especially in Florida. Toluse Olorunnipa and Josh Dawsey report: The president “used his appearances before television cameras — and his Twitter account — to repeatedly offer cover for the Saudis, conveying Riyadh’s condolences with more fervor than he used in relaying his personal feelings about the shooting. … Trump’s defense of the Saudi government, which began just hours after Friday’s shooting, steadily became a more isolated position over the weekend as more information trickled out about the gunman and other Saudi nationals who were receiving training at the base. … Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), normally a staunch Trump ally, was among several officials from the state pushing for more stringent scrutiny of foreigners who come to the United States for military training. Gaetz, who earlier called the killing an act of terrorism, also suggested the incident should change America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. … 

"Trump, who often jumps to label shootings by foreigners from Muslim-majority countries as terrorism, had not done so as of Sunday evening. …  Florida Sen. Rick Scott (R), who immediately labeled the shooting terrorism, has called for a halt in the military program that brings hundreds of foreign nationals to U.S. bases to train alongside American troops. ... Several other Saudis who were also training on the base have been questioned by the FBI and Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper said Sunday that some of the trainees filmed the shooting. Speaking on Fox News, Scott called on the Saudi government to provide more support for the investigation. ...

The president has personally chafed at the idea of not being able to sell arms to Saudi Arabia, even as lawmakers have repeatedly condemned the kingdom’s human rights record in the wake of the grisly murder of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi and civilian casualties from the Saudi-led coalition’s bombing campaign in Yemen. … Democrats tried to restrict arms sales to Saudi Arabia as part of a military budget deal negotiated this week, but the White House pushed back and rejected the idea … Trump has shown little interest in Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, according to current and former aides. The president has been especially blunt in describing his transactional approach to foreign affairs, particularly in the Middle East where his interests in oil, arms deals and terrorism intersect.”

-- North Korea claims to have carried out an “important” test at a rocket launch site. Simon Denyer and Min Joo Kim report: “The test paves the way for North Korea to launch a satellite or intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) around the end of this year, experts said, fulfilling a threat to give the United States an unwelcome ‘Christmas gift.’ A spokesman for North Korea’s Academy of National Defense Science said the test was carried out Saturday at the Sohae Satellite Launching Station in Tongchang-ri, a site near the Chinese border that has been used to launch satellites into space in the past. The United Nations bans North Korea from launching satellites, viewing it as a cover for testing ballistic missile technology.”

-- Chinese officials are literally burning books that diverge from Communist Party ideology. Gerry Shih reports: “The book-burning incident, with all its dark historical precedents from this country and Nazi-era Germany, has heightened alarm at a time when Chinese intellectuals see their society tipping further into authoritarianism. The incident gained widespread attention on Sunday after Chinese social media users noticed a report on the Library Society of China’s website from a library in Zhenyuan County, which declared it had removed ‘illegal publications, religious publications and deviant papers and books, picture books and photographs’ in an effort to ‘fully exert the library’s role in broadcasting mainstream ideology.’”

-- China has ordered that all foreign computer equipment and software be removed from government offices and public institutions within three years. From the Guardian: “The government directive is likely to be a blow to US multinational companies like HP, Dell and Microsoft and mirrors attempts by Washington to limit the use of Chinese technology, as the trade war between the countries turns into a tech cold war.”

-- Large and peaceful protests in Hong Kong show that the pro-democracy movement is still going strong. Shibani Mahtani reports: “Hundreds of thousands of people showed up in the park where the movement began in June, waving signs calling for the end of Chinese Communist Party rule and for the Hong Kong government to meet protesters’ four outstanding demands. The march, approved by authorities, was one of the biggest peaceful protests in the city in months — organizers counted at least 800,000 participants — and demonstrated the strong support that still exists for greater democratic freedoms despite a crackdown in which police have fired more than 10,000 tear gas canisters and arrested about 6,000 people.” 

-- A 34-year-old transportation minister will become Finland’s youngest prime minister ever -- and its third female leader. From the AP: “Finland’s ruling Social Democratic Party council voted 32-29 late Sunday to name Sanna Marin over rival Antti Lindtman to take over the government’s top post from incumbent Antti Rinne. Having emerged as Finland’s largest party in the April election, the Social Democrats can appoint one of their own to the post of prime minister in the Nordic nation of 5.5 million.”

-- The U.S. ambassador to Denmark barred an American NATO expert critical of Trump from speaking at an international conference hosted by the embassy and a Danish think tank, effectively cancelling the Copenhagen event. From the Times: “The expert, Stanley R. Sloan, was scheduled to give a keynote speech at the conference, which was celebrating the 70th anniversary of NATO, on Tuesday. … One day before he was set to leave for Copenhagen, Mr. Sloan was informed that the United States Embassy in Copenhagen had vetoed his participation because of his previous criticisms of [Trump], Mr. Sloan said on Facebook on Saturday. Carla Sands, the United States ambassador to Denmark, did not want Mr. Sloan to participate, and the Danish Atlantic Council ‘had no other option’ than to revoke his invitation to speak, Lars Bangert Struwe, the secretary general of the council, said in a statement.”

-- British voters in the middle of an already messy election say they don’t like either Boris Johnson or Jeremy Corbyn. William Booth and Karla Adam report: “Many voters confess unease with the erudite but untrustworthy Prime Minister ... and his plan for a hard, swift Brexit, and also with Labour leader [Corbyn] and his own hard-left plan to remake the British economy under a socialist banner. As the two main parties have moved away from the center and toward what many consider the extremes, voters in the middle are wondering where to go. This is especially so for the half of the country that doesn’t like Brexit.” 

-- Reddit uncovered a Russian interference campaign in the U.K. ahead of Thursday’s election. (Gizmodo)

-- Personal animosity between Argentina’s and Brazil’s leaders is complicating the relationship between South America’s largest economies. Marina Lopes reports: “As South America melts down — Colombia the latest nation to erupt in mass protests, Bolivia searching for a consensus leader, Venezuela lurching into another year of economic, political and humanitarian crises — its two largest economies have been relative oases of calm, run by like-minded leaders cooperating on finance, trade and security. Now, the growing personal animosity between [Jair] Bolsonaro and [Alberto] Fernández is threatening that stability. Bolsonaro, a right-wing populist, has called Fernández and his vice president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, ‘leftist bandits,’ and said their election threatens the Mercosur regional trading bloc. Fernández, a Peronista with ties to the region’s leftists, has labeled Bolsonaro a misogynist and racist.”

DOMESTIC DEVELOPMENTS THAT SHOULD NOT BE OVERSHADOWED:

-- A nativity scene outside a church in Southern California displays Jesus, Mary and Joseph in cages, separated at the border. Kimberly Winston reports: “The nativity display from Claremont United Methodist Church, a suburban congregation east of Los Angeles, is raising both praise and ire for its depiction of the biblical story of Jesus’s family fleeing to Egypt in the context of controversial U.S. immigration policies. The nativity is meant to highlight the plight of migrants and refugees, a longtime cause for this 300-member congregation, said the Rev. Karen Clark Ristine, the church’s senior pastor. … Biblical interpretations suggest that after Jesus’s birth, his parents took him to Egypt fearing King Herod would have him killed. … Ristine rejected the notion of the nativity as a political statement. ‘A nativity is the theological equivalent to public art, and the role of public art has always been to offer awareness,’ she said. ‘Jesus taught us kindness and mercy and the radical welcome of all people.’”

-- The administration wants to expand migrant family detention, despite expert warnings. From the Times: “The administration wants to expand the system of secure facilities where migrant families can be incarcerated for months or longer. In late November, Justice Department lawyers appealed a federal judge’s decision that blocked the government’s attempt to eliminate a 20-day time limit on most family detentions. … Facilities like the one at Dilley [Texas], which is run by the private prison company, CoreCivic, could multiply to incarcerate more than 15,000 parents and children across the country. ... Research at existing family detention centers found heightened levels of stress, which can damage neurons and lead to smaller brain masses in children who have been detained for long periods.”

-- A county in North Dakota may become the first in the U.S. to bar new refugees after Trump issued an executive order making such a move possible. From the AP: “Reuben Panchol was forced to leave war-torn Sudan decades ago as a child, embarking on an odyssey that eventually brought him to the American Midwest and left him eternally grateful to the country that took him in. ‘I am an American citizen, a North Dakotan,’ said Panchol, a 38-year-old father of four. ‘And without North Dakota, I couldn’t have made it.’ Panchol hopes to share his story on Monday with members of a local commission who are set to vote on whether their county will stop accepting refugees. If they vote to bar refugees, as expected, Burleigh County — home to about 95,000 people and the capital city of Bismarck — could become the first local government to do so … The county postponed a vote last week when more than 100 people showed up and overflowed the commission’s normal meeting space. Monday night’s meeting will be held in a middle school cafeteria to accommodate public interest that Chairman Brian Bitner said is the most intense he’s seen in more than a decade on the commission. Though he declined to predict which way the commission would go, Bitner said he would vote against accepting additional refugees.”

-- Democrats used Trump’s fixation on creating a Space Force to get a parental-leave policy that, if approved, would be the biggest victory for federal employees in nearly 30 years. Jeff Stein, Lisa Rein and Josh Dawsey report: “Some Democratic aides say the proposed federal benefits package would cost about $3 billion, though there is disagreement about whether those costs would span five or 10 years. The expansion would give federal employees a rare victory after the Trump administration has sought to cut their benefits for three years. Many of them also endured the longest-ever government shutdown under the current administration about a year ago. Congressional Republicans were less determined to get the Space Force approved than the White House because it hadn’t been a GOP priority before Trump took office. They were undercut by the Trump administration, as the president had told advisers he wanted to be able to trumpet the creation of the Space Force as part of his reelection bid. The tentative agreement would fall short of what Democrats had hoped for: They wanted to secure paid leave not only for the birth, adoption or foster placement of a child, but also to care for a spouse, child or parent with a serious health condition or when a family member is deployed for military duty.”

-- Elizabeth Warren earned nearly $2 million working as a consultant for corporations and financial firms while she was a law professor at Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania and other law schools, according to records her campaign abruptly released Sunday evening. Annie Linskey reports: “Her campaign had been asked repeatedly for the information and had declined to release it multiple times.Her work for some of the companies doesn’t fit neatly with her current presidential campaign brand as a crusader against corporate interests.For instance, the documents released Sunday show that Warren made about $80,000 from work she did for creditors in the energy company Enron’s bankruptcy and $20,000 as a consultant for Dow Chemical, a company that was trying to limit the liability it faced from [faulty] silicone breast implants that were made by a connected firm.

“Earlier this year, Warren had released a list of about 50 cases that she worked on, but the descriptions of the work were at times misleading and the amount of income and dates for her work were not included. While the cases released by Warren’s campaign stretch over more than three decades, the figures disclosed Sunday show that nearly all of the money was made from cases filed after she got her job at Harvard in 1995. (Warren was elected to the Senate in 2012.) The income includes about $212,000 for representing Travelers Indemnity Co. in 2009, and $190,000 for what her campaign described as representing a chain of department stores owned by PA Bergner & Co. in the mid-1990s. … Warren’s campaign did not release compensation information for all of the cases, reporting in some instances — including a case involving First Commercial Bank — that ‘the campaign has no compensation records for this case.’"

-- The brave new world: A geneticist at Harvard Medical School is working on an app that compares DNA between potential sexual partners and screens out matches that would result in a child with an inherited disease. “You wouldn't find out who you're not compatible with. You'll just find out who you are compatible with,” the geneticist George Church told “60 Minutes” reporter Scott Pelley about his project many criticized as an experiment in eugenics. Church was one of the Harvard professors who met with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein years before his jailing and death, meetings that have been presumably related to genetics research. Epstein donated $6.5 million to Harvard’s Program for Evolutionary Dynamics in 2003, per NBC News.

-- One of President George H.W. Bush’s grandsons will enter an already crowded GOP primary for a suburban Houston congressional seat. From the Texas Tribune: “Nonprofit executive Pierce Bush will announce his candidacy for Congress on Monday morning, according to an email written by his father, Neil Bush. Bush will enter an already crowded GOP primary for Texas' 22nd District, the suburban Houston-area seat retiring U.S. Rep. Pete Olson currently holds. The development is something of a surprise; Bush was considering running for the neighboring 7th Congressional District, a seat once held by his grandfather.”

SOCIAL MEDIA SPEED READ:

The president went on a tweeting and retweeting spree last night, sharing more than 100 messages. The majority were attempts at discrediting the impeachment inquiry, but he made a passing comment about his time at the NATO summit last week:

He seemed excited for today’s FBI inspector general report:

Protesters showed up at a Pete Buttigieg campaign event with posters pointing out his polling record with black voters:

Joe Biden revealed that his son Beau, who passed away, was burdened by the cost of his education:

Several presidential candidates marked the first anniversary of the death of Jakelin Caal Maquin, the 7-year-old who died in Border Patrol custody. Five more children have died in custody since then:

Rep. Devin Nunes accused this man of stalking him without pointing out that he is a reporter for The Intercept who asked him about his calls to Giuliani associate Lev Parnas: 

A Vanity Fair reporter weighed in on the powerful nativity scene outside a California church:

The Kennedy Center Honors were last night, and “Sesame Street” was among those celebrated for lifetime achievement in the arts. Many of the long-running show’s performers honored puppeteer Caroll Spinney, who died Sunday. Spinney gave life to Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch: 

QUOTE OF THE DAY: “I didn't plan on running this time. For real," Joe Biden said in New Hampshire. "I'd planned on running last time, but my son was dying." (Bloomberg News)

 

VIDEOS OF THE DAY:

"Saturday Night Live" envisioned what the NATO summit would've looked like in a high school cafeteria: 

The show also tried to answer the question: "How would the president's supporters respond to the impeachment inquiry if Trump were black?"

"The Daily Show" correspondent Jaboukie Young-White tried to get in touch with the Founding Fathers to talk about impeachment: