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The Daily 202: Esper’s split with Trump over targeting Iranian cultural sites is a nod to ‘the laws of armed conflict’

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with Mariana Alfaro

With Mariana Alfaro

THE BIG IDEA: Secretary of War Henry Stimson and President Harry Truman agreed in 1945 that the United States should not drop an atomic bomb on Kyoto. Stimson had seen the historical and cultural significance of Japan’s ancient imperial capital when he visited during his honeymoon in 1893, so he overruled a committee that sought to target the city and explained his rationale directly to the president. 

Stimson wrote in his diary after the conversation that Truman “was particularly emphatic in agreeing with my suggestion” that “the bitterness which would be caused by such a wanton act might make it impossible during the long post-war period to reconcile the Japanese to us in that area rather than to the Russians.”

Truman reflected on that same meeting in his own diary. “Even if the [Japanese] are savages, ruthless, merciless and fanatic,” he wrote, “we as the leader of the world for the common welfare cannot drop that terrible bomb on the old capital or the new.”

Fast forward 75 years: Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, who holds the job Stimson once did, put himself at odds with President Trump on Monday night by definitively telling reporters that the U.S. military will not target cultural sites inside Iran on his watch, even if hostilities continue to escalate in the wake of the U.S. drone strike that killed Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani at the Baghdad airport last week. “We will follow the laws of armed conflict,” Esper told reporters at the Pentagon. Asked if that means the U.S. military will not target cultural sites, he answered: “That’s the laws of armed conflict.”

Trump tweeted on Saturday that the United States has targeted 52 sites for possible retaliation, including “some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture.” Speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One on Sunday night, the president doubled down in asserting his willingness to attack cultural sites: “They’re allowed to kill our people. They’re allowed to torture and maim our people. They’re allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people. And we’re not allowed to touch their cultural sites? It doesn’t work that way!”

President Trump warned Jan. 5 of a "major retaliation" if Iran were to strike back for the killing of Qasem Soleimani, one of Iran’s top military commanders. (Video: Reuters)

In fact, international law does work that way. The 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, which the United States helped facilitate in the aftermath of World War II, requires that warring parties “take all possible steps to protect cultural property,” which includes “monuments of architecture, art or history, whether religious or secular.”

A 1977 amendment to the Geneva Conventions went further. It bans “any acts of hostility directed against the historic monuments, works of art or places of worship which constitute the cultural or spiritual heritage of peoples,” and it requires that signatories neither “use such objects in support of the military effort” nor “make such objects the object of reprisals.”

To be sure, Stimson did not have a perfect record: He supported Japanese internment and the restrictive immigration quotas that limited how many Jewish refugees the United States accepted from Europe. More than 100,000 civilians also died from the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

But even during America’s last war for national survival – after the sneak attack at Pearl Harbor and relentless kamikaze suicide missions against U.S. vessels – the secretary of war understood something fundamental about the power and possibility of moral leadership in what we now remember as the American Century. Stimson recognized not just the aesthetic and historical value of protecting irreplaceable cultural sites but the derivative national security advantages that would flow, in what became the Cold War, from Americans holding themselves to a higher standard than their enemies.

Trump has repeatedly repudiated the very concept of American Exceptionalism and espoused a variety of moral false equivalency that is deeply at odds with the republic’s long bipartisan tradition. The bellicose threat to target cultural sites is just the latest example of Trump squandering the moral high ground that generations of his predecessors worked to claim, even if they fell short at key moments. In November, Trump overruled military leaders and cleared three members of the military who were either credibly accused or convicted of war crimes. He’s claimed that “torture” works. He suggested during the 2016 campaign that he supported killing noncombatant family members of terrorists.

After President Trump threatened to strike Iranian cultural sites, a war crime, Trump administration officials said any such strikes would be lawful. (Video: The Washington Post)

Brett McGurk, the former U.S. envoy to the international coalition fighting the Islamic State from 2015 to 2018, characterized Trump’s latest threats as “unAmerican.”

“American military forces adhere to international law,” he tweeted. “They don’t attack cultural sites. And they’re not mercenaries. Reckless and unprecedented words from a Commander-in-Chief.” 

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a former military lawyer in the Air Force Reserve, said he urged Trump to stop threatening cultural sites during a Monday phone call. “We’re not at war with the culture of the Iranian people,” Graham told the New York Times. “We’re in a conflict with the theology, the ayatollah and his way of doing business. I think the president saying ‘we will hit you hard’ is the right message. Cultural sites is not hitting them hard; it’s creating more problems.”

“Targeting civilians and cultural sites is what terrorists do,” added Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee. “It's a war crime.”

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson also publicly broke with Trump on Monday, with his spokesman declaring that he will not abide Trump’s threat to target Iranian cultural sites. “Johnson is trying to perform a balancing act,” William Booth and Karla Adam report from London. “He is under pressure to support Trump and the United States, Britain’s closest ally. He very much wants a free-trade deal with Washington, to show his country that his Brexit crusade was worth the price. But Johnson is also a student of history — and remembers well how British Prime Minister Tony Blair was seen as the gullible, junior partner to President George W. Bush and his headlong rush to war in Iraq.”

-- Iran is home to 22 cultural UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including the ancient ruins of Persepolis. (The UNESCO web site has the full list, with pictures and descriptions of each site.) 

-- Trump’s saber-rattling is particularly noteworthy because America has historically led the international community in codifying restrictions on the targeting of cultural heritage. “In March 2017 — only weeks after Trump’s inauguration — the U.N. Security Council, with the United States as a permanent member, unanimously adopted a resolution condemning the ‘unlawful destruction of cultural heritage, inter alia destruction of religious sites and artefacts’ in armed conflicts,” Rick Noack reports. He looks back on the disturbing recent history that prodded the UN to act:

“Starting in 1991, Yugoslav People’s Army forces besieged the historic city of Dubrovnik in Croatia, leading to the destruction of parts of its center. In the city of Sarajevo, in Bosnia, the Vijećnica city hall was set on fire in 1992, destroying its sizable library. In the aftermath, former prosecutors and researchers with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia assessed more broadly that during conflicts, ‘it is increasingly evident that cultural property is not simply at risk from incidental harm, but is being intentionally attacked as part of cultural cleansing campaigns.’ …

“In 2016, North African militant Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi was convicted by the International Criminal Court of ‘intentionally directing attacks against historic monuments and/or buildings dedicated to religion’ in the ICC’s first such trial, focusing on the destruction or damaging of cultural property. Mahdi was sentenced to nine years in prison for his role in attacking nine mausoleums and one mosque in Timbuktu, Mali, in 2012.”

This footage, released by NATO, shows the moment that the Buddhas were exploded by the Taliban in March 2001. Before they were destroyed, the statues were the world’s largest standing Buddhas. (Video: NATO)

-- The Post’s art and architecture critic Philip Kennicott laments: “If we are to be a barbarian nation, what are our new limits? Do we have any?”

“In March 2001, the Taliban regime in Afghanistan began to dynamite the 6th-century statues of Buddha in Bamian,” Kennicott writes. “The decision was both impetuous and brutal, in part an exercise in fundamentalist iconoclasm, in part an act of defiance and rage against the world at large. It was a galvanizing moment in the recent history of cultural heritage … Fourteen years later, the Islamic State’s destruction at Palmyra did much the same work of branding, defining the cruel so-called caliphate as an organization beyond all bounds. Our leadership has been imperfect and sometimes hypocritical. But when a lack of U.S. leadership led to the looting of Baghdad’s antiquities museum during the 2003 Gulf War, the U.S. response wasn’t to claim a basic right to destroy culture. We argued the ‘fog of war.’ It was defensive, muddled and wrong, but not amoral. …

“In 2018, as part of the military budget, Congress created the position of coordinator for cultural heritage protection. A statement Sunday decrying Trump’s words, signed by cultural heritage experts in anthropology, archaeology and the museum world, details recent progress during the Trump administration, including the Smithsonian Institution’s plans to assist the Army in training a new corps of ‘monuments men,’ experts who can help the military avoid cultural destruction. … The new line, the one we crossed this weekend, isn’t between one set of cultural values vs. another; it isn’t between people who speak our language and those who speak all others. It is between culture and the void, between the many and variegated ways in which different people try to live together peacefully and productively, and the pure nihilism of autocracy. The threat wasn’t to Iranian cultural sites. It was to culture.”

-- “The Department of Defense's Law of War manual mentions cultural property 625 times, repeatedly citing the Hague Convention,” NPR notes. “Accordingly, the U.S. military educates its soldiers about their responsibilities not to target or destroy cultural property, and to help in its preservation, says Nancy Wilkie, president of the U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield. The organization is dedicated to the prevention of destruction and theft of cultural heritage. The Pentagon has even distributed playing cards with photos of cultural sites in Afghanistan and elsewhere to remind troops to safeguard heritage sites and artifacts. … As World War II was underway in 1943, then-Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower issued an order to his commanders demanding the protection of historical monuments.” 

-- Trump’s threat has become a propaganda coup for the regime in Tehran. For example, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif sub-tweeted Trump on Sunday:

-- The Trump administration has barred Zarif from entering the United States this week to address the United Nations Security Council about the Soleimani strike, Foreign Policy reports, “violating the terms of a 1947 headquarters agreement requiring Washington to permit foreign officials into the country to conduct U.N. business.”

“The Iranian government was awaiting word on the visa Monday when a Trump administration official phoned U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres to inform him that the United States would not allow Zarif into the country,” Colum Lynch and Robbie Gramer report. “But even before the current crisis, [Pompeo] in recent months had sought to restrict the ability of Zarif—a skilled debater who has studied in the United States and has extensive contacts with American journalists—to make his case to the American public during previous visits to the United States. In July, the United States restricted his movement to a few blocks in Manhattan and Queens, preventing Zarif from making his regular visits to TV studios, universities, and think tanks. Pompeo defended the decision, noting that American diplomats lack freedom to travel in Iran.”

-- Iranian leaders have long memories, dating back to American support for the shah. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Monday also invoked Iran Air Flight 655, a commercial jet shot down by the U.S. Navy by mistake on July 3, 1988, killing all 290 civilians and crew on board, including 66 children. “Although the incident is nearly forgotten in the United States, it is etched deeply in memory in Iran,” Gillian Brockell explains. “In 1988, the long war between Iraq and Iran was close to ending. At the time, the United States supported Iraq and its leader Saddam Hussein in its fight against Iran. … To this day, many hard-liners in the Iranian government believe the incident was intentional.”

Hundreds of thousands of Iranians took to Tehran's streets Jan. 6 for the funeral of Qasem Soleimani, a military commander who was killed by a U.S. strike. (Video: Reuters)


-- The burial of Soleimani has been postponed after a stampede killed at least 50 people and injured more than 200 others during massive mourning marches through his hometown of Kerman, according to Iranian state television. Erin Cunningham is anchoring our liveblog: “Iranian leaders have stepped up calls for revenge against the United States for its airstrike that killed Soleimani, with one intelligence official saying concrete retaliation plans are already being discussed. … Security council head Ali Shamkhani said 13 scenarios for retaliation are being considered, and specifically mentioned that U.S. bases in the region were under surveillance. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard commander, Maj. Gen. Hossein Salami, hinted that Israel could be a target.”

-- The Pentagon rushed to play down reports that U.S. troops in Iraq were being repositioned in preparation for a possible withdrawal, one day after Iraqi lawmakers passed a nonbinding resolution calling for all foreign troops to leave the country. Karen DeYoung, Missy Ryan and Paul Sonne report: “‘This is a mistake,’ the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark A. Milley, told reporters at the Pentagon after a letter indicating a withdrawal was released to Iraqi officials by the U.S. military command in Baghdad. The letter, he said, was an unsigned planning draft discussing new deployments and ‘should not have been released.’

A policy afterthought for the past three years, while it served as a hub for military efforts against the Islamic State and a place from which to keep a close eye on Iran, Iraq has suddenly become a problem for the United States. After bringing the Islamic State to heel and claiming to be well on his way to stopping the ‘endless wars’ in the Middle East, Trump finds himself in the middle of an entirely new crisis on the same battlefield that bedeviled his two immediate predecessors. There is widespread agreement among U.S. lawmakers and close allies that [Soleimani] was responsible for years of terrorist activities … But many worry that the administration has no strategy to deal with the likely escalation of U.S.-Iranian conflict that will follow. That concern is most acute in Iraq, where the two powers have long vied for influence. ‘This administration doesn’t have a policy on Iraq,’ said a former senior Iraqi official … Iraq, he said, has been a subsidiary of policies toward Israel and Iran, seen as ‘baggage from the last administration.’ ...

Already, the United States has suspended counter-Islamic State operations in Iraq and Syria while the 5,000 U.S. troops in Iraq turn their attention to force protection in expectation of an Iranian response. NATO and U.S. training of Iraqi troops has also been suspended, and the U.S. government has told American civilians in Iraq to leave the country. Current and former officials said a prolonged pause in counterterrorism operations, let alone a U.S. departure, would hurt American security interests in the region. … U.S. officials said it would be difficult if not impossible to continue the mission targeting the Islamic State in Syria, where there are 1,000 U.S. troops, without a presence in Iraq.”

-- Senior administration officials have begun drafting sanctions against Iraq after Trump publicly threatened the country with economic penalties if it proceeded to expel U.S. troops, according to three people briefed on the planning. Jeff Stein and Josh Dawsey scoop: “The Treasury Department and White House will probably take a lead role if the sanctions are implemented … Such a step would represent a highly unusual move against a foreign ally that the United States has spent almost two decades and hundreds of billions of dollars supporting. … One of the officials said the plan was to wait “at least a little while” on the sanctions decision to see whether Iraqi officials followed through on their threat to push U.S. troops out of the country.”

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) spoke with The Washington Post on Jan. 6 about the sudden escalation in tensions between the United States and Iran. (Video: The Washington Post)

-- "Trump, who rarely makes major moves without first calculating the ramifications for his popularity and self-image, has confided to advisers that he sees a political upside in his hard-line approach to Iran at the dawn of this year’s campaign, according to two White House officials and several senior Republicans," Bob Costa and Phil Rucker report. “Trump believes he has an opportunity to expand his support among voters as a wartime commander in chief and is trying to cast his Democratic critics as soft on terrorism, they said. They added that he sees his party as more united behind him than ever, even as his impeachment trial looms in the Senate, with some Republicans now arguing that it would be irresponsible and dangerous to remove a president amid a national security crisis.

Trump struck a harshly partisan tone Monday that foreshadowed the political battles to come. Calling into Rush Limbaugh’s nationally syndicated radio show, the president maligned Democrats for ‘trying to make’ [Soleimani] ‘sound like he was this wonderful human being’ and argued that ‘elements of that party [are] openly supporting Iran, an enemy of the United States.’ … At his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida over the past week, Trump privately told advisers he was surprised at how many Democrats criticized him for taking action — and he has spoken encouragingly about how his decision is being received by many Americans on social media and in news coverage, according to two White House officials … As last week’s strike was unfolding, Trump casually discussed whether ‘Bernie or Biden’ would be easier to beat, according to conservative talk-show host Howie Carr, who published an essay about his time Thursday night at Mar-a-Lago.”

-- Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a central figure in the Iran and impeachment stories, told Mitch McConnell that he will not run for the open Senate seat in Kansas this year. Josh Dawsey and John Hudson report: “McConnell had recruited Pompeo to run for Senate to guarantee the seat would stay in the hands of the Republican Party after the retirement of Sen. Pat Roberts. Pompeo had regularly visited Kansas and was consulting with Ward Baker, a prominent GOP strategist close to McConnell. He had fueled speculation of a bid in recent weeks by creating personal social media accounts that regularly featured him with his family dog, cheering on sporting events and even drinking beer in his kitchen. … Aides said [Trump] wanted Pompeo to stay on as secretary of state, particularly after the strike..."

-- Attempts on Capitol Hill to limit Trump from acting militarily against Iran are shaping up to be largely partisan votes. “House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) plans to have the House vote this week to invoke its war powers and order Trump to remove U.S. troops from hostilities against Iran, while Democrats in the Senate are preparing to force a vote as early as next week on a measure from Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) that would do the same,” Karoun Demirjian reports. 

Democrats seem unlikely to win the support of several key Republican figures who have backed previous efforts to check Trump’s power as commander in chief but now vocally defend his decision to kill Soleimani. ‘I would be very shocked if any Republican votes for this resolution,’ said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a close Trump ally who nonetheless voted last year to curtail U.S. military operations in Yemen and block the president from waging war against Iran without Congress’s express authorization. … Sen. Mike Lee (Utah), another Republican who voted last year to require congressional authorization for Iran hostilities — and who led Senate efforts with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to invoke the War Powers Resolution to end U.S. military support for the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen — similarly took issue with the assertion in Kaine’s measure that the Soleimani strike constitutes ‘either hostilities or a situation where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances into which United States Armed Forces have been introduced.’”

-- “How a ‘quantum change’ in missiles has made Iran a far more dangerous foe,” by Joby Warrick: “When a swarm of drones and cruise missiles attacked Saudi Arabia’s biggest oil facility on Sept. 14, an outraged Trump administration quickly blamed Iran for what it called an ‘unprecedented attack’ on global energy supplies. But the real surprise was the strike’s accuracy: Of 19 weapons used, all but two scored direct hits. When the smoke cleared, Saudi officials counted 14 holes where incoming projectiles had sliced through petroleum storage tanks. Three other critical parts of the oil-processing facility had been hit and disabled, shutting down the facility and temporarily cutting Saudi oil production in half. In subsequent reports, U.S. analysts would describe the attack as a kind of wake-up call: evidence of a vastly improved arsenal of high-precision missiles that Iran has quietly developed and shared with allies over the past decade. 

In the event of a wider war with the United States, Iran would probably deploy such weapons to inflict substantial damage on any number of targets, from U.S. military bases to oil facilities to sites in Israel, analysts say. … U.S. and Middle Eastern officials say the upgraded missiles — some with ranges of more than 1,200 miles — are but one of several potential avenues for carrying out Iran’s promise to exact revenge … Less impactful globally, but psychologically disruptive, would be a series of assassinations or kidnappings, conducted in such a way as to shield Iran from blame.”

-- Trump’s order to take out a top Iranian general may do what his withdrawal from the nuclear agreement did not: Kill the deal. Anne Gearan explains: “Iran announced Sunday that it would no longer be bound by some of the deal’s most important safeguards. Iran’s announcement alone does not render the agreement moot, and at least one important element of it — U.N. inspection power — remains in force. But Iran has less incentive now to abide by the agreement, and Trump appears to have less leverage to hash out the better deal with Tehran that he says President Barack Obama failed to get. That leaves Trump in the position of owning how to deal with any attempt by Iran to build a nuclear weapon, with no clear answers about how he would do so after scrapping and deriding what world leaders believed was their best chance to keep the theocratic regime’s nuclear ambitions at bay. ... 

With its announcement, Iran could now return to stockpiling enriched uranium, the raw material for a bomb. Depending on the pace of that effort, Iran could amass nearly enough material for a bomb within a matter of several months. Pushing back the tipping point when Iran could ‘break out’ and make a quick drive for a viable weapon was the central goal of the 2015 deal. If Iran reconstitutes its abilities to roughly the status quo in place before negotiations, there is little left to save, analysts said.”

-- “Russia stands to benefit as Middle East tensions spike after Soleimani killing,” Robyn Dixon reports from Moscow: “If the United States withdraws from Iraq as backlash over the killing widens, Russia could strengthen its foothold in the country — much as it did in Syria after Trump ordered a troop pullout there last fall, a step that was later partly reversed. … German Chancellor Angela Merkel will meet Putin in Moscow Saturday at his invitation, to discuss the crisis. … A hasty U.S. departure would give Iran what it has sought for years, analysts said. But they noted that it could also create a void for Russia to exploit, although it is more likely to do so through diplomatic overtures, trade deals and arms sales than by taking up any military slack. …

In Syria, President Bashar al-Assad asked Putin to intervene as the Islamic State and anti-government rebels threatened his power. … The man who argued Assad’s case to Russian defense and security officials — and convinced them the war was still winnable — was Soleimani, who traveled to Moscow in July 2015, unfurled a map of Syria on the table and explained what could be done to prevent Assad’s regime from falling … The following April … Soleimani met with Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in Moscow to discuss deliveries of Russian missiles to Syria. According to media reports from 2015 to 2017, he traveled numerous times to Moscow in breach of a U.N. travel ban. … Soleimani’s mission paid off for Russia, saving its strategic naval base in Tartus on Syria’s Mediterranean coast. Russia also expanded its military foothold on Europe’s doorstep, gaining use of the nearby Hmeimim air base and establishing what some in NATO see as an air defense zone in the region.”

-- “Why North Korea’s state media has barely mentioned U.S. killing of Iran’s Soleimani,” by Simon Denyer in Tokyo: “Between coverage of Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un’s major policy speech last week, and his visit to a fertilizer factory this week, a small report by the Korean Central News Agency on Monday noted that China and Russia condemned a U.S. strike in Baghdad. The last paragraph noted that the raid had led to the deaths of Iran’s Quds Force commander and an Iraqi militia figure, without naming them or offering any real sense of Soleimani’s importance. … Experts say Pyongyang’s caution stems from its fear of U.S. military action and its reluctance to acknowledge that important leaders might be eliminated — lest anyone at home start getting ideas. Its state media has a record of withholding information about the fates of former dictators targeted by the United States who ended up being killed, including Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi.

"The idea that North Korea would trust a U.S. administration that had walked away from the nuclear deal with Iran, much less a nation with a history of fomenting regime change abroad, was always fanciful, experts say, but Kim made it clear that the experience of dealing with the United States over the past two years had only reinforced his convictions. … Trump’s decision to kill Soleimani may convince him to push ahead even faster in developing his country’s nuclear arsenal, but it also demonstrates that the U.S. president is not all bluster when he talks of ‘fire and fury.’”

-- The Soleimani fallout gives Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu a chance to shift focus from his legal woes – but not for too long. Steve Hendrix and Ruth Eglash report from Jerusalem: “Three days after the U.S. drone strike, Netanyahu’s efforts to shield himself from prosecution had returned to Israel’s front pages. ... For Netanyahu, a hawk, any shift of focus from his legal woes to regional security is considered an advantage. The election campaign has been overshadowed by the corruption allegations against Netanyahu, who was indicted in November on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. He has refused to resign or drop out of the race, and last week he formally requested parliamentary immunity from prosecution.”

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Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Jan. 6 again said the Senate should hold impeachment trial arguments first then debate witnesses. (Video: U.S. Senate)


-- John Bolton scrambled the Senate GOP impeachment strategy by declaring his willingness to testify and upping the pressure on McConnell and his party to summon the former national security adviser as a witness in Trump’s trial. Rachael Bade, Mike DeBonis, Tom Hamburger and Robert Costa report: "Bolton last fall rebuffed House impeachment investigators’ entreaties to testify about his concerns about Trump’s demands that Ukraine investigate his political rivals as the administration delayed military aid. Bolton’s surprise announcement complicated the political calculus for McConnell’s no-witness strategy and appeared to increase the likelihood of additional testimony that could embarrass the president. … At least one Senate Republican, Mitt Romney (Utah), agreed Monday that it was imperative that Bolton testify, while Democrats insisted that Republicans’ refusal to allow him to tell his story would be tantamount to a ‘coverup.’ Bolton has firsthand knowledge of internal White House deliberations, and according to testimony in the House probe, he reacted angrily to Trump’s pressure on Ukraine to investigate former vice president Joe Biden … 

Two moderate Senate Republicans — Susan Collins (Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) — have said they’re open to hearing from witnesses. Still, the same centrist Republican senators signaled that they were willing to start the trial without a deal for Bolton’s testimony, keeping McConnell in firm control for now as he works to delay any decision on additional witnesses until after House Democrats present their case and the president’s defense team rebuts it. … The major question for McConnell is whether he can hold the line ... A subpoena requires a simple majority of 51 votes, and Democrats would need just four Republicans to break ranks. … In recent months, Bolton has confided to friends that he was deeply troubled by his time at the White House and the president’s behavior, but he has declined to offer many details ...

“Still, other Bolton associates have privately said that he wants a future in Republican politics and does not want to be seen as a turncoat on Trump or someone who is trying to ingratiate himself with the president’s critics. They noted, for instance, that his statement Monday came from his political action committee’s office as an example of how he’s trying to build out his operation even as he deals with legal issues. Additionally, people close to him note that Bolton also has an expansive view of presidential power. As a result, it is unclear whether he would testify that he believes Trump overstepped his constitutional authority in his dealings with Ukraine. … Senate Republicans appeared divided on the possibility of hearing from Bolton. Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.), who is close to McConnell, told Guy Benson, political editor for conservative, that Bolton’s testimony could be ‘helpful to the president’ and that he’d like to know more about what he’d say. Other Republicans, including Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), suggested that the Senate should consider only the evidence gathered in the House, thereby precluding Bolton.”

-- Commentary from the opinion page: 

  • Ruth Marcus: “Will he or won’t he? John Bolton is playing a very cagey game.”
  • Jennifer Rubin: “Pelosi’s strategy pays off: Now bring in Bolton.”
  • Dana Milbank: “Trump wags the hippopotamus.”


Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey announced on Jan. 6 that Harvey Weinstein will be charged with sexually assaulting one woman and raping another. (Video: Reuters)


-- Disgraced Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein was charged with multiple sex crimes in Los Angeles on the same day his trial began in New York. Shayna Jacobs reports: “Weinstein — who is 67 but has visibly aged since his May 2018 arrest in New York — was in court with his five attorneys for a final conference before jury selection begins in his trial on rape and sexual assault allegations involving three women. He faces the possibility of life in prison in the New York case and has pleaded not guilty. The charges filed in Los Angeles should not affect plans to proceed with jury pre-screening in New York Supreme Court in Manhattan, scheduled for Tuesday morning, and a spokesperson for the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office said that Weinstein is not expected to appear in court there until his trial in New York concludes. … Weinstein remains under investigation by authorities in Dublin and London. … The charges in Los Angeles involve alleged encounters with two women, a day or two apart, in February 2013, authorities said. In all, eight people have come forward there to report crimes involving Weinstein, officials said. In three cases, the statute of limitations had expired, so charges were not filed. The other three remain under investigation. … Prosecutors in Los Angeles are recommending a $5 million bail in a case for which Weinstein faces up to 28 years in prison."

-- Weinstein’s publicists are sending reporters a 57-page PowerPoint presentation titled “The Proper Narrative for Addressing the Harvey Weinstein Case.” From The Cut: “The document presents oppo research about Weinstein’s accusers, including text messages and photographs, with the goal of vindicating him in the press. … The document frequently shifts in tone, voice, font size, and color, and seems to include some draft notes (‘[ask HW: did they actually meet? Seems possible]’) and strike-throughs. It argues that some women’s allegations of sexual abuse were the result of ‘strong and repeated suggestions from others,’ including press reports and activists. ‘Given the pressures that many women today feel from the various laudatory movements against workplace imbalances, the notion that consensual relations are being reinterpreted cannot be overlooked,’ it says on page 10. The document claims there is ‘no objective support’ for any of the women’s claims because there were no witnesses and ‘no physical injuries — even scratches’; current rape law requires nothing of the sort and hasn’t for at least a half century.”

-- The Environmental Protection Agency announced that it will pursue a new industry-supported rule to cut pollution from heavy-duty trucks. Brady Dennis reports: “Heavy-duty vehicles are the largest mobile source of nitrogen oxide, a pollutant linked to heart and lung disease. They also tend to remain in service far longer than other vehicles. Still, some environmental advocates said they feared that the EPA’s proposal could preempt even more stringent rules being considered in California. At an announcement in rural Virginia, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said the agency would soon move forward with its ‘Cleaner Trucks Initiative,’ aimed at further curbing highway emissions of nitrogen oxide and other pollutants from heavy-duty engines.  … Monday’s announcement received instant praise from the trucking industry, members of which stood alongside Wheeler at his announcement."

-- The Internal Revenue Service’s personal income tax audits dropped to their lowest level in decades. From the WSJ: “The IRS audited 0.45% of personal income-tax returns in fiscal 2019, down from 0.59% in 2018 and marking the eighth straight year of decline, according to a report released on Monday. In 2010, the IRS audited 1.1% of tax returns. The report doesn’t break down audits by income category or provide details about how much revenue they generate. The steady erosion of tax enforcement has been driven by years of cuts in the agency’s budget along with a heavier workload. The result, according to tax experts, is that the Treasury is letting billions of dollars annually go uncollected, even as budget deficits rise.” 

-- A bipartisan group of campaign finance lawyers urged the Trump administration and the Senate to restore a quorum at the Federal Election Commission. Michelle Ye Hee Lee reports: “The agency tasked with regulating federal campaign finance laws has long faced ideological divisions and polarization. But it lost its ability to do its official job after the August 2019 resignation of a commissioner left it to operate for the first time in 11 years without its necessary four-person quorum. While routine administrative work continues, the agency cannot enforce the law, vote on investigations, provide guidance or conduct audits — activities that are especially crucial and timely for a presidential election, which is projected to be the most expensive one to date. In a joint letter Monday, 31 attorneys across the political spectrum and whose clients are regulated by federal campaign finance law asked [Trump] and congressional leaders for ‘swift attention to this situation, which has languished for far too long.’”

-- Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) will likely still receive his taxpayer-funded congressional pension despite pleading guilty to felony conspiracy for misusing campaign funds to finance multiple extramarital affairs, including with a female lobbyist, as well as other personal expenses. From the San Diego Union-Tribune: “The amount of money in Hunter’s congressional pension is not publicly known, and the Congressional Research Service and the Office of Personnel Management both declined to provide The San Diego Union-Tribune with information regarding the the congressman’s benefits. Hunter remains in Congress, although he said he would step down ‘shortly after the holidays.’ He is to be sentenced March 17. Based on formulas outlined in a paper released by the research service earlier this year, it is estimated that Hunter, 43, would receive an annual payment of at least $32,538 due to his congressional pension, which he can begin accessing when he turns 62.”

-- A 6.5 magnitude earthquake hit Puerto Rico overnight after a 5.8 magnitude earthquake shook the island yesterday. From CNN: “Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority reported widespread outages across the island after its power plants activated an auto protective mechanism following the earthquake. Puerto Rico Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced urged citizens to remain calm as the government responds to the most recent quake. … No tsunami is expected following Tuesday's earthquakes, the US National Tsunami Warning Center said. ... All the earthquakes appear to have been foreshocks to Tuesday morning's largest quake, CNN meteorologist Pedram Javaheri said."

-- Yesterday's earthquake damaged more than a dozen homes and destroyed a natural wonder. Arelis R. Hernádnez reports: “An ancient Puerto Rico rock formation that adorned the background of countless vacation photos, Instagram posts and selfies tumbled into the ocean off the U.S. territory’s southwestern coast."

-- American Airlines and Boeing reached a settlement for financial losses related to the worldwide grounding of the 737 Max jet. Lori Aratani reports: “While the terms are confidential, Doug Parker, American’s CEO, said a portion — $30 million — will be shared with employees through the company’s profit-sharing plan. American is the second U.S. carrier to reach a settlement with the company; Southwest Airlines announced it had reached a settlement with Boeing in December. … American has removed the jet from its schedule through April 6. … American has 24 737 Max jets in its fleet. The money is expected to be paid out to employees in March.” 

-- YouTube will roll out new protections for children viewing videos on the site in an effort to satisfy federal regulators who fined the company over alleged privacy violations. Greg Bensinger and Tony Romm report: “The changes, which include limitations on data collection and advertising, are a step toward addressing concerns from advocacy groups who have complained the Google-owned company has run afoul of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA, which forbids tracking and targeting users 12 and under. As part of those changes, YouTube said it will seek to better distinguish which content is intended primarily for children, relying on a combination of self-identification from creators and software. That content cannot run with personalized advertisements, under the new rules that YouTube said it is instituting globally starting Monday. YouTube said it will assume any viewer of child-friendly content is underage, treating that data as subject to COPPA rules. It has been limiting other features too, such as comments on children’s videos and live chats. But some privacy experts said the changes may not offer children enough protections from a company that has accrued reams of data on its users and is incentivized to compel viewers to stay on the site for as long as possible.” 

-- Facebook said it will ban deepfakes – computer-generated, highly manipulated videos – but the new policy may not cover a deceptively edited video altered to make Nancy Pelosi sound as if she’s slurring her words. Tony Romm, Drew Harwell and Isaac Stanley-Becker report: “‘While these videos are still rare on the internet, they present a significant challenge for our industry and society as their use increases,’ Monika Bickert, the company’s vice president for global policy management, wrote in a blog post. The changes come as Bickert prepares to testify at a congressional hearing later this week on ‘manipulation and deception in the digital age.’ The inquiry marks the latest effort by House lawmakers to probe Facebook’s digital defenses four years after Russian agents weaponized the site to stoke social unrest during the 2016 race. Going forward, Facebook intends to ban videos that are ‘edited or synthesized’ by technologies like artificial intelligence in a way that average users would not easily spot, the company said, including attempts to make the subject of a video say words that they never did.” 

-- Russian trolls are targeting American veterans, and the Trump administration has ignored the issue, a group claims. Alex Horton reports: “American veterans and service members enjoy a high degree of social respect, and ongoing manipulation campaigns aimed at them could be weaponized to sow social discord in their communities, Vietnam Veterans of America warned officials at the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments in March 2018, among other agencies. But those agencies have brushed off VVA since they were presented with evidence that eventually became a detailed report and congressional testimony, said Kristopher Goldsmith, the veteran service organization’s chief investigator. And their plea to President Trump for help has similarly been ignored, Goldsmith said — suggesting the problem may be perceived as too complex or politically fraught for U.S. officials concerned to cross Trump, who has downplayed Russia’s role in election interference.”

-- Chelsea Clinton has made more than $9 million from sitting on a corporate board. From Barrons: “Clinton, who has been an [InterActiveCorp] director since 2011, receives an annual $50,000 retainer and $250,000 in restricted IAC stock units ... As of Dec. 31, she owned the equivalent of 35,242 IAC shares, consisting of 29,843 shares and 5,399 share units under a deferred-compensation plan, according to a form she filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Share units convert to stock when an IAC director leaves the board.”

-- Illinois shops ran out of marijuana just six days after the start of legalization. Katie Shepherd reports: “Standing in line for hours in frigid temperatures, tens of thousands have flocked to the nine dispensaries selling recreational cannabis in Chicago after Illinois’s newly legalized cannabis sales began on New Year’s Day. The numbers have been staggering: 55 dispensaries in the state sold more than $3 million in THC-imbued products on day one, matching Oregon’s record-setting opening for recreational sales in 2015. By Sunday, Illinois’s cannabis customers had bought nearly $11 million worth of recreational marijuana in the first five days, making more than 271,000 purchases. But the crush of eager buyers strained the state’s marijuana supply, leading many dispensaries in Chicago to turn away customers before the first week of sales even ended. Meanwhile, given the state’s restrictive licensing rules, some large cultivators are now rushing to expand their marijuana grows to keep up with recreational demand in a market previously designed to serve a much smaller number of medical cannabis patients.” 


-- More than 61,000 people have disappeared in Mexico amid the drug war, authorities said, sharply raising their estimate of those who have vanished in more than a decade of extreme violence by and among organized-crime groups. Mary Beth Sheridan reports: “The government of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador released the new figure after an exhaustive analysis of data from state prosecutors. The previous official estimate, released in April 2018, put the number at 40,000. While hundreds of cases date to the 1960s, over 97 percent have been reported since 2006, when Mexico launched an all-out offensive targeting drug trafficking and criminal organizations. Karla Quintana, head of Mexico’s National Search Commission, which coordinates the effort to find the missing, said that at least 61,637 people had been reported disappeared and not been found. ‘These are data of horror, and behind them are stories and narratives of great pain for families,’ she said at a news conference. … The Monday announcement highlights the toll of more than a decade of extraordinary violence in Mexico that shows no sign of abating. Last year, homicides through November topped 31,000, a record. In some regions, organized-crime groups openly battle police and soldiers. Quintana said 3,631 clandestine graves have been discovered since 2006.” 

-- A 13-year-old American boy was killed in Mexico near the U.S. border while traveling with his family. From CNN: “Oscar Lopez was shot in both legs and died in an attack Saturday night in Tamaulipas state, near the US border, said the teen's father, also named Oscar Lopez. The father said three other relatives were injured in the ambush attack: his wife, 41-year-old Juanita Lopez; their other son, 11-year-old Abio Lopez; and his brother-in-law, 48-year-old Raphael Castillo. The elder Oscar Lopez said the group was visiting relatives in the Monterrey area for the holidays, though he stayed back in the US. On Saturday night, family members in two vehicles -- both with Oklahoma license plates -- were driving on the Reynosa-Nuevo Laredo Mexican highway in Ciudad Mier, according to a statement from Tamaulipas state authorities. The family was confronted by unknown assailants. Tamaulipas officials said the family's van did not stop, so the assailants crashed into the van to force it to a halt.”

-- Mexican asylum seekers could now be deported to Guatemala as part of a deal that the Department of Homeland Security struck with the Central American nation. From the Times: “The agreement with Guatemala, which was signed in July, was described by Kevin K. McAleenan, the acting secretary of homeland security at the time, as a way to encourage families to apply for protections closer to home. The deal made migrants such as Hondurans and Salvadorans ineligible for asylum in the United States if they had traveled by land through Guatemala and did not first apply for asylum there, homeland security officials said at the time. But two homeland security officials said on Monday that asylum officers were told over the weekend that Mexican migrants were now ‘amenable’ to being sent to Guatemala under the agreement. In theory, an asylum seeker from Juárez, Mexico, could be deported from the El Paso, Texas, border crossing a mile from his home to the Guatemalan border nearly 2,000 miles away. A homeland security spokesman later confirmed that certain Mexicans could be sent to Guatemala under the agreement — a pivot from the original plan for the deal.”

-- Mexico rejected the proposal, saying it's working with American authorities to offer “better options.” (Reuters)

-- The Trump administration will seek the death penalty against an MS-13 gang member, who immigrated here from El Salvador, accused in the kidnappings and killings of two Virginia teenagers in 2016. Rachel Weiner reports: “Elmer Martinez, 27, is alleged to be the leader of the Fairfax County clique that authorities say killed a 17-year-old suspected of belonging to a rival gang and a 14-year-old who revealed that crime to the victim’s family. … Defense attorney Robert Jenkins said he was informed by the Justice Department of its decision, a step he said he believed was taken to support the president’s stance on illegal immigration. … Jenkins said Martinez ... did not have a violent criminal history and is not alleged to have inflicted blows in either slaying. In their filing, prosecutors said Martinez has a history of uncharged violent conduct, including assaults, stabbings and another attempt at kidnapping and homicide. While in jail awaiting trial, they say, he was twice found with a shank.”

-- The U.S. government has launched a pilot program to collect DNA from people detained at the border, which will then be turned over to the FBI. From the AP: “The information would go into a massive criminal database run by the FBI, where it would be held indefinitely. A memo outlining the program published Monday by the Department of Homeland Security said U.S. citizens and permanent residents holding a ‘green card’ who are detained could be subject to DNA testing, as well as asylum seekers and people entering the country without authorization. Refusing to submit DNA could lead to a misdemeanor criminal charge, the document said. … The DHS memo acknowledged that the DNA its agents collect may not be immediately useful. Agents plan to take saliva swabs of detained people, then mail them to the FBI. By the time the results are processed, the memo said, the people in question may have already been released, deported or transferred to another federal agency.” 

-- A senior employee at a for-profit immigrant detention center in Nevada was active on the neo-Nazi website Iron March and wanted to start a white nationalist chapter in his area. From Vice News: “Travis Frey, 31, is currently employed as a captain at the Nevada Southern Detention Center, which is run by private prison behemoth CoreCivic and contracted with ICE. Frey joined Iron March in 2013, and posted at least a dozen times between 2016 and 2017 while he was working as head of security at a CoreCivic jail in Indianapolis, which was also authorized to house detainees on behalf of ICE. … On Iron March, Frey used the screen name ‘In Hoc Signo Vinces,’ a Latin phrase that’s used by military outfits around the world, and by universities, and was the title of the American Nazi Party’s manifesto. Vice News was able to identify Frey, who served in the Marines between 2006 and 2008, through some of the personal information he provided on Iron March … The Nevada Southern Detention Center, where Frey has worked since at least 2018, according to a now-deleted LinkedIn page, is located in Pahrump, 62 miles west of Las Vegas, and is contracted with ICE and U.S. Marshals … In June 2017, Frey started putting out feelers about joining the ranks of the Traditionalist Workers Party (TWP), which was run by Heimbach before its demise and was a key player in the violent Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017.”

-- Venezuelan opposition lawmakers led by Juan Guaidó vowed to retake the National Assembly after being barred from the chamber this weekend, setting up a showdown over President Nicolás Maduro’s attempt to seize control of the last democratic institution left in the nation. Rachelle Krygier and Anthony Faiola report: “The move appeared to be an attempt by Maduro to sideline Guaidó — the U.S.-backed opposition leader who has unsuccessfully sought to unseat Maduro for the past year — by preventing his reelection on Sunday as head of the assembly. That title has served as the basis of his claim to be the nation’s true interim leader, one that has been recognized by nearly 60 nations including the United States. ‘The dictatorship will decide tomorrow if it will continue its farce, which no one recognizes,’ Guaidó told reporters in Caracas. He suggested that if his entry was blocked, he would attempt to lead a session of the loyalist lawmakers elsewhere in the capital. ‘We will take this risk because Venezuela deserves it,’ he said. ‘The dictatorship is now unmasked.’” 

-- During a 10-minute call, Vice President Mike Pence told Guaidó that he is the “only legitimate president” of Venezuela. From the WSJ: “Mr. Pence has played a central role in the administration’s campaign to elevate Mr. Guaidó. Early last year, on the night before Mr. Guaidó declared himself the country’s interim president, Mr. Pence called the Venezuelan opposition leader and pledged that the U.S. would support him, setting in motion a monthslong campaign to wrest power from Mr. Maduro.” 

-- After nearly a year without a government, Spain ended its deadlock Tuesday with a parliamentary vote that approved a left-wing coalition led by current caretaker Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez. Pamela Rolfe and Chico Harlan report: “The vote, passing by the narrowest of margins, opens the way for a government composed of the country’s traditional left-wing party, the Socialists, and its erstwhile foe, far-left Unidas Podemos. It vaults the left fully back into power in Spain at a time when other mainstream pro-European parties across the continent have struggled to combat populism or overcome disenchantment with the political status quo. But while the parliamentary vote restores a measure of clarity to Europe’s fifth-largest economy, the new government will probably be fragile. It will control a minority of seats in parliament and depend on support from a constellation of smaller parties while dealing with budget issues and the Catalonia region’s divisive bid for independence.” 

-- Australia’s catastrophic fires threaten to upend the way people live. From the WSJ: “The death toll is lower than the 173 killed in the Black Saturday fires in Victoria state in 2009, but in other respects these blazes—which could persist until March—are being viewed by experts as unprecedented. The scorched area is vast, with more than 23,000 square miles burned nationwide since early November. Almost every state has been affected—thousands of people have been forced to flee their homes, and tourists visiting summer holiday spots have been trapped by advancing fires. Australia’s insurance council says more than $260 million of claims have been lodged since Nov. 8, when it declared a catastrophe, but that represents a trickle of what is to come. An additional $39 million in claims were lodged before Nov. 8 for fires in September and October. … It is still too dangerous for property owners to return to some areas, and many communities in the two worst affected regions—southern New South Wales state and eastern Victoria—have no power or telecommunications. … The environmental toll has also been severe. A researcher from the University of Sydney has estimated that as many as 480 million animals have been killed by wildfires in New South Wales alone since September. Footage of distressed koalas—the iconic Australian bearlike marsupial—approaching people and drinking water has been widely viewed.” 

-- The world’s oldest person broke her own record by turning 117. Lateshia Beachum reports: “Kane Tanaka is proving a person is never too old to achieve life goals. Tanaka celebrated her 117th birthday Thursday — stretching out her record as the world’s oldest woman. She has been holding on to her title as the oldest living person for nearly two years. The supercentenarian was gussied up in a gold kimono with red trimmings as she was ushered into her birthday celebration at a nursing home in Fukuoka, Japan. … She clapped her way into her big day and stopped to kiss the hands of well wishers before singing a birthday song. ... The seventh of eight children cried tears of joy when she was handed two plaques last year for being the world’s oldest living person and the world’s oldest living woman.”

-- Japan issued an arrest warrant for Carlos Ghosn’s wife on suspicion of perjury, even as Nissan said it would continue to take legal action to hold its former boss accountable for “serious misconduct.” (Simon Denyer


A Republican congressman, Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona, tweeted a fake image of Barack Obama with Iran's president. The two men never even met:

Donald Trump Jr. has a new weapon that includes questionable icons

History repeats itself. Fox News putting Judy Miller on the air caused flashbacks for many to her problematic reporting that gave cover for George W. Bush to invade Iraq in the first place:

Another flashback:

A former secretary of defense offered a chilling warning amid the letter mishap:

The social media conversation was dominated by questions and jokes like these:

From a former Pentagon and CIA spokesman:

DHS issued a guide on how to prepare for a potential cyberattack from Iran: 

The White House has set a new record for days without a press briefing: 

CNBC mistook Tulsi Gabbard and Andrew Yang for other people, and the other Yang took note:

The acting deputy secretary of Homeland Security just read a headline: 

QUOTE OF THE DAY:  “In any other country, Joe Biden and I would not be in the same party, but in America, we are,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) told New York Magazine. 


The president made 179 factual claims at his longest rally to date. Our Fact Checker team found that 67 percent were false or unsupported by evidence:

The president made 179 factual claims at his longest rally to date. We found that 67 percent were false or unsupported by evidence. (Video: The Washington Post)

Stephen Colbert was a bit on edge during his first monologue of the year: 

Seth Meyers joked that it didn’t take that long for 2020 to become the worst year: 

Trevor Noah noted that Trump backed out of his new year’s resolution very quickly: 

“The Daily Show” joked that Trump may be clairvoyant: