with Mariana Alfaro

With Mariana Alfaro

THE BIG IDEA: Mike Bloomberg thinks that maybe “an emergency phone” line should be installed so that Iranian and American officials can easily get in touch, like the red teletype hotline that connected the Pentagon with the Kremlin after the Cuban missile crisis. This, he hopes, could avoid misunderstandings that might lead to full-scale war.

The billionaire former mayor of New York, running for the Democratic presidential nomination, believes broadly in the value of engaging with American adversaries. “We should talk to the North Koreans. I think [President] Trump is right on that,” Bloomberg said during a half-hour interview last night. “We need China,” he added.

Bloomberg called to discuss the economic plan that he will roll out today at a community college in the South Side of Chicago, on a soybean farm in rural Minnesota and at a converted tire factory in Akron, Ohio.

But he grew most animated when discussing World War I. When I asked how he’d handle the current Iran crisis if he were in the Oval Office, Bloomberg mused at length about the “emotion” and “miscalculations” a century ago in Europe that spiraled into a four-year conflict, bringing down monarchies and forever changing the nature of combat. He said the best book he’s read in a while is “Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War,” by the British journalist Max Hastings.

Bloomberg noted that most wars start over something relatively minor before spiraling out of control. “You read history, which I gather he has not done," said the 77-year-old, referring to the president. “All of a sudden the small thing blows up.”

He recalled the Winston Churchill quote that “meeting jaw to jaw is better than war.”

“That's why we should talk to the North Koreans,” he said. “Yes, [Trump] hasn't gotten them to stop developing weapons or anything, but I'd still rather have contact – and the same thing with China and the same thing with all of these countries.”

Bloomberg is running an outside-the-box campaign. He is not campaigning in the first four early states, but he’s building an unmatched field operation in the states that vote on Super Tuesday in March and beyond, hoping that he can emerge from a crowded field as an electable alternative to more liberal candidates who might emerge from the Iowa caucuses.

Just six weeks after joining the race, Bloomberg is fifth in the national polling average, garnering about 6 percent among Democrats. He’s hired more than 800 staffers, with 500 of them spread across field offices in more than 30 states. The effort has already spent approximately $150 million on television and radio commercials – and another $20 million or so on Facebook and Google ads.

Iraqi Kurdish security forces inspected the remnants an Iranian missile fired in the early hours of Jan. 8 that targeted the U.S. military. (Rudaw via Storyful)

We spoke around the time Iran launched ballistic missiles toward two bases in Iraq that house U.S. troops but before the Pentagon confirmed the strikes and gave word that there were no casualties. “I don't know if this goes any further,” Bloomberg said. “I don't know what comes out of this. I can't read the tea leaves to know about tomorrow. But I do know that if you're making irresponsible decisions, the likelihood of bad and even calamitous results grows.”

Referring to the drone strike that killed Quds Force Commander Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad, which prompted Iran’s retaliation, Bloomberg added: “Nobody should feel sorry for the guy that was killed. He was a bad guy who killed a lot of Americans. Two presidents before President Trump looked at the opportunity to kill the guy and decided not to. … We don't know what the intelligence is or was, and that will come out eventually. … The problem, to me, is that we have a president who tends to make decisions irrationally and impulsively and recklessly. I don't know that he isn't doing that this time.”

Bloomberg criticized Trump for marginalizing experts and debasing the value of expertise, which has caused attrition among career professionals in the foreign service. “I know that staffs get annoying, but you do need them,” he said. “And any good businessperson, which Donald is not, … would tell you that you don't make decisions alone. The board would throw you the hell out if that's what you said you did.”

When I noted that Bloomberg lacks the kind of traditional foreign policy experience of someone like Joe Biden, who spent 35 years in the Senate and then eight years as vice president, he emphasized not just that he was mayor of “the most international city in the world” – as home to the United Nations – but highlighted his overseas business interests.

“My company does business in almost every country in the world,” he said. “We don’t do business with Iran or North Korea or Yemen, I think, but fundamentally we do business in virtually every country. In terms of experience, internationally, I think I know what I'm doing.”

Bloomberg said the State Department’s job is “building relationships and having backdoor conversations so that we don't make a mistake and misjudge what the other side is doing.” He likened the benefits from open channels of diplomacy to the plusses of open-office floor plans, which he said foster more collaboration and cut down on leaking when he was mayor. “I’m a big believer in things like seating plans and open plans and how you treat people,” he said. “That has enormous impact on how they behave.”

Forbes magazine pegs Bloomberg as the world’s ninth-richest person, with an estimated net worth of $55.5 billion, and he’s set no cap for how much he’s willing to spend in the 2020 race. For example, he will spend $10 million, pocket change for him, to air a 60-second spot during the Super Bowl. After Bloomberg’s campaign announced this yesterday, the Trump campaign let it be known that it too will spend that amount to run a commercial early in the game, the most-watched television event of the year.

Bloomberg emphasized that 95 percent of the delegates to the Democratic convention this summer will come from places other than the four early states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina that vote in February. 

“The other candidates, because of the system we have, think that winning one of those first early states will propel them into a world where they can then raise money and then go to the big states,” he said. “They don't have any choice, I suppose. They don't have the money. They have to show they are viable to get the money to be viable.”

He’s traveling aggressively to states that vote in March. He landed in Virginia at 4 a.m. on Tuesday after a redeye on his private jet from Los Angeles, where he had a late dinner after attending an opening for one of his 10 field offices in California. After visiting Richmond, he flew to New York in the afternoon. He dropped by his foundation’s office to pick up mail, stopped by his house to drop off “a jacket that a button had come off” so it could be sewn back on, went to his corporate office to “sign a couple of papers” and then headed to his campaign headquarters, where he called me. He planned to leave home around 6 a.m. today for the flight to Illinois.

Bloomberg has met the polling threshold to appear in next week’s Democratic debate in Des Moines, but the Democratic National Committee also requires that candidates raise money from at least 225,000 unique donors, including a minimum of 1,000 in at least 20 states. Bloomberg, however, is not accepting any donations.

“My policy of not taking a dime from anybody shows a non-corruptibility that a lot of voters should want,” he said. “Somebody said to me the other day, 'You're spending a lot of money.' And I said, 'Yes, I'm spending an enormous amount of money trying to get rid of Donald Trump. Now, do you want me to spend more or less?' And he laughed and said, ‘Oh, I had just not thought about it that way. Go spend more!’”

Rivals like Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders routinely castigate Bloomberg by name, presenting him as an avatar for the outsize influence of the billionaire class in politics. “It's an easy, cheap shot if you don't have any money to criticize people who do have money," he answered. “But I'm spending my money to try to educate the voters and make this country better and to give me the opportunity to devote what would probably be the rest of my life to helping the country that my children and grandchildren are going to live in long after I'm gone.”

Bloomberg, who unlike Trump is a self-made man, built his business empire, which employs about 20,000 people, around terminals that provide immense financial data. He also takes credit for creating half a million jobs in New York City during 12 years as mayor. While he may be freely spending his own money for this campaign, Bloomberg emphasized that he’s trying to identify policies that won’t drown the country deeper in red ink.

“What I want to do is to lay out concrete things that we can do – without a lot of money – that will make a difference, rather than just give a speech saying I think we should do something for the job market,” he said. “That's what the others are going to do, but they don't have any real experience in creating jobs.”

During his Midwestern swing today, Bloomberg will pledge to create millions of higher-paying jobs in places that he says have been “left behind” by Trump. His proposals include raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, funding more public-private partnerships so that 1 million students can earn apprenticeship degrees by 2030, expanding national collective bargaining rights, piloting programs to provide more portable benefits for independent workers in the gig economy and expanding rural broadband access.

Bloomberg has been outspoken in his criticism of Trump’s tariffs on Chinese exports, which led to retaliatory tariffs against American imports. China is the biggest market for American soybeans, and farmers like those hosting Bloomberg today in Wells, Minn., have suffered because of the trade war. 

But Bloomberg’s company also has significant financial interests in China. He was criticized for saying during a September television interview, amid the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and China’s ongoing repression of Muslim minorities, that President Xi Jinping “is not a dictator.” Xi, he explained, “has to satisfy his constituents or he’s not going to survive.”

When I asked about his relationship with Beijing last night, Bloomberg said that “every U.S. businessperson and every big company has no choice but to deal with them.”

“China is a big market for American products like soybeans,” he said. “I would recommend that you read a story in today's New York Times. I know it's a competitor, but you should read the story about who's actually paying the tariffs. It's virtually 100 percent the American consumer, not the Chinese.”

Bloomberg added that there are “complex” issues at play. “I have tried to urge the Chinese to adopt more democratic, with a small ‘d,’ policies,” he said. “On human rights, I think some of the things that they do are a disgrace. But we need China, if for no other reason, than to save this planet because of climate change. You cannot solve the problem without China. ... For us to walk away from China and have a battle with them when we need them to do something that's going to be in not just our interest, but our salvation, that doesn't make a lot of sense to me.”

At the end of our interview, Bloomberg reiterated his suggestion to read “Catastrophe 1914,” the book about World War I. “I know who won, but I won't spoil it for you,” he joked.

Lamenting the punitiveness of the Treaty of Versailles that ended the war, as well as the influenza pandemic after the armistice, Bloomberg said he’s thought through various counterfactuals. “If we'd had Harry Truman with the Marshall Plan, we probably wouldn't have had a second war,” he said. 

He also recalled walking around the trenches at the Somme battlefield during a trip to France. “Remember, the allies never set foot on German soil,” he said. “I've always thought that was one of the reasons the German military didn't care so much about stopping Hitler. Deep down inside, they thought they got sold out. Now, history would probably say when the Americans were coming in, [surrendering] was the right thing to do. You would have gotten massacred.”

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President Trump on Jan. 7 defended the strike that killed Iranian General Qasem Soleimani by pointing, in part, to Soleimani’s past actions. (The Washington Post)

THE LATEST ON IRAN:

-- The more than a dozen ballistic missiles that Iran launched last night targeted two Iraqi bases housing American military personnel. Karen DeYoung, Paul Sonne and Dan Lamothe report: “The president, meeting late Tuesday night with his senior national security advisers at the White House, issued his initial response on Twitter and struck a less bellicose tone. He suggested but stopped short of saying that there were no initial reports of U.S. casualties. ‘All is well! Missiles launched from Iran at two military bases located in Iraq. Assessment of casualties & damages taking place now. So far, so good!’ Trump wrote. ‘We have the most powerful and well equipped military anywhere in the world, by far! I will be making a statement tomorrow morning.’ ...

“House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), among several congressional leaders notified of the Iranian action in telephone calls from Vice President Pence, said on Twitter, ‘We must ensure the safety of our servicemembers, including ending needless provocations from the Administration and demanding that Iran cease its violence. America & world cannot afford war.’ … The strikes, which took place near dawn in Iraq, were initially announced by Iranian media, which called them ‘the first step . . . in revenge’ for the killing of Soleimani. ...

“An IRGC statement broadcast on state television warned that any further American action would bring ‘a painful response' ... It also threatened other countries housing U.S. bases, saying that they, too, would be hit with ‘revenge’ operations if any U.S. strikes were launched from them. … In using ballistic missiles, Iran relied on what the Defense Department considers one of its core capabilities. In a briefing held in November, a senior analyst focused on Iran told reporters at the Pentagon that the missiles constituted a primary component of Tehran’s strategic deterrent.” 

-- One of the two bases attacked, Irbil, is a major hub for U.S. and coalition military activity in Iraq. Erin Cunningham, Adam Taylor and Michael Brice-Saddler report: “Many U.S. forces pass through Irbil on their way in and out of a network of much smaller bases in Syria. During the peak of the campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq, military officials also oversaw a major battle in the nearby city of Mosul from Irbil. The city, like most of Iraqi Kurdistan, has been considered safer for U.S. personnel than other parts of Iraq.” 

-- A Ukrainian passenger jet with more than 170 people on board crashed in Iran shortly after takeoff from the Tehran airport, killing all aboard. Isabelle Khurshudyan, Erin Cunningham and Sarah Dadouch report: “In the aftermath of the crash, Ukraine has banned all flights from Iranian air space, a move also taken by several other countries in light of the rising tensions between Iran and U.S. forces in the region. The Boeing 737 likely crashed due to technical difficulties, Iranian state media quoted Ali Kahshani, a senior public relations official at the airport, as saying. Ukraine’s embassy in Iran at first concurred, issuing a statement ruling out terrorism, but then took it down without explanation. A later statement from the embassy said that a commission is investigating the causes of the crash, and that 'any statements about the causes of the accident before the decision of the Commission are not official.' ...

“The aircraft involved in Wednesday’s incident, a Boeing 737-800, was three years old and purchased from the manufacturer as new by Ukraine International Airlines, the carrier said in a statement. It had its last routine technical maintenance on Monday. A flight-data recorder from the plane has been recovered. … Though the Boeing 737-800 has not been flagged for issues, the newer 737 Max was grounded worldwide last year after the crash of an Ethiopian Airlines flight on March 10."

-- The Trump administration insisted the U.S. military would remain in Iraq, setting up a conflict with senior Iraqi officials, who want an immediate withdrawal. Dan Lamothe, Mustafa Salim and Liz Sly report: “Trump, speaking at the White House, said that withdrawing the estimated 5,000 U.S. troops would be the ‘worst thing to happen to Iraq.’ ‘At some point, we want to get out,’ Trump said. ‘But this isn’t the right point.’ … The chaos has been highlighted by the reaction in Baghdad to a letter sent by a senior U.S. commander to Iraqi officials Monday. The document suggested that the United States may be preparing to withdraw its troops. ... Iraqi officials said Tuesday that they are interpreting the letter as notification that U.S. troops will leave. Acting prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi said the document ‘was clear’ and expressed exasperation with conflicting U.S. signals. … Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, speaking at the Pentagon, dismissed the letter as ‘a draft’ that ‘has no value,’ and he insinuated that its release to the public in Iraq may have had ulterior motives.”

-- Some NATO troops are beginning to leave Iraq. From the New York Times: “NATO is removing some of the trainers who have been working with Iraqi soldiers battling the Islamic State. … The NATO secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, announced on Monday that the training had been temporarily suspended."

-- The White House stumbled in its initial public response to Soleimani’s killing. David Nakamura and Josh Dawsey report: “Trump and his top advisers have refused to provide details of what prompted the decision to strike and offered conflicting accounts over whether Soleimani was coordinating imminent attacks on U.S. facilities in the Middle East. The lack of clear information continued late Tuesday in Washington, after Iran said it retaliated for Soleimani’s death with missile attacks on military bases in Iraq. The White House announced Trump would make no public remarks in response Tuesday night, nor would any other senior administration officials. Hours later, Trump tweeted that he would address the nation Wednesday morning. … Previously, Trump had caused an international uproar after threatening to attack dozens of Iranian cultural sites — only to retreat Tuesday following statements from his defense secretary and other officials dismissing such actions as illegal. 

"Vice President Pence is preparing a speech slated for next week on Iran policy, one official said, in an attempt to provide a more cohesive explanation of the president’s strategy. The flurry of events has led to a sense of confusion in the White House and a lack of clarity around a highly sensitive operation that the administrations of his two predecessors, Barack Obama and George W. Bush, had chosen not to take due to risks that it could spark a regional war.” 

-- All quiet on White House front Tuesday night? "At the White House, where the president assembled his relatively skeletal war Cabinet after nightfall, there was a vacuum of information. Officials were tight-lipped and bleary-eyed. The press secretary did not answer questions, only briefly ducking out of her office a bit before 9 p.m. to head home for the evening. A presidential address was considered but not delivered. Trump’s Twitter feed, often a pulsating applause meter during live events, at first stayed frozen in time," report Phil Rucker, Ashley Parker and Josh Dawsey. "For a few hours, at least, with the United States at the dangerous precipice of a hot war with Iran, there was an outward appearance of calm at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. — or at least quiet."

-- Which is it? Some senior administration officials argue Soleimani was killed as retaliation for increasing Iranian aggression, while others insist without evidence the aim was to avert an “imminent” threat. Karoun Demirjian, Karen DeYoung and Shane Harris report: “At one end of the spectrum, national security adviser Robert O’Brien argued on ‘Fox & Friends’ that [Trump] authorized eliminating Soleimani because the Iranian general and his allies ‘were looking to kill American diplomats and soldiers in significant numbers in the coming days.’ But in comments before reporters at the State Department, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pointed to Iran’s past behavior as justification, arguing that ‘the days that led up to the strike’ were what made the response urgent — and that the ‘continuing efforts on behalf of this terrorist to build out a network of campaign activities that were going to lead potentially to the death of many more Americans’ were an additional concern. Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper split the difference, noting that there was ‘exquisite intelligence’ — a term of significance in spy circles — indicating that Soleimani was ‘conducting preparing, planning military operations’ akin to the ‘terrorist activities’ he had been pursuing against the United States for more than two decades. 

"While some nuance is common when interpreting intelligence, the mixed messaging among Trump’s top advisers … is potentially problematic for senior officials as they begin to brief lawmakers who remain divided over the operation. ... According to Esper, only the Gang of Eight will receive the ‘exquisite intelligence that . . . was one of the factors that led to the decision to strike at Soleimani.’ Gang of Eight lawmakers who attended the Tuesday briefing with intelligence leaders refused to comment on what they heard. But in the intelligence community, the term ‘exquisite’ is often applied to satellites or other highly classified reconnaissance systems that provide detailed information, including the words an individual spoke or the person’s precise movements. Esper’s choice of words suggested the U.S. could have intercepted communications or other intelligence that he believes revealed Soleimani’s intentions.”

-- House Democrats may not vote this week, after all, on a war powers resolution after Iran’s attack on U.S. assets. Politico reports that the prospect of intensifying conflict in the region, and the unwillingness of Republicans to break with the president, complicates the timing: “House Democrats say they are likely to pause, if not abandon, their plans for a war powers resolution. … In a private meeting, some Democrats pushed to add a measure from Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) that would defund any U.S. military action against Iran without first receiving congressional approval … Moderate Democrats had their own reservations about the whole exercise, and are unwilling to draft a resolution that would hamstring the military in its response to future attacks. … Some progressives, meanwhile, were looking to go even further. Two lawmakers, [Rep. Barbara] Lee [D-Calif.] and Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), had been pushing their own version of a war powers resolution over the weekend.”

-- Trump has cited the death of an American defense contractor as a reason for the missile strikes against Iraqi militias he ordered last month. The man has been identified as an interpreter who was born in Iraq and lived in Sacramento. Aaron C. Davis reports: “Nawres Hamid, 33, became a naturalized citizen in 2017, according to his widow. He was the father of two boys, ages 2 and 8, she said. In recent years, as an Arabic interpreter for U.S. forces in Iraq, Hamid was known to decorate his living space with pictures of the children, according to a co-worker. Hamid was killed on Dec. 27 when U.S. authorities say an Iranian-backed militia fired rockets at a military base near the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk. The attack, which injured several coalition troops, prompted Trump to order missile strikes against Iraqi militias. ... Hamid’s death has been a rallying cry for Trump.” 

-- Trump's reelection campaign is already running ads on Facebook touting Suleimani’s death. From the Times: “‘Thanks to the swift actions of our commander in chief, Iranian General Qassem Soleimani is no longer a threat to the United States, or to the world,’ several of the Trump ads read, using an alternate spelling of the Iranian general’s name. Some featured pictures of a beaming Mr. Trump from one of his campaign rallies; others showed a stoic, finger-waving president, also in front of supporters. The ads asked voters to take the ‘Official Trump Military Survey,’ directing users to Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign website. All told, the Trump campaign has run nearly 800 distinct Facebook ads about the killing of General Suleimani, according to Acronym, a progressive digital strategy group.” 

-- Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) canceled a campaign fundraiser in D.C. in light of the Iran developments. Klobuchar said she was “closely monitoring what is happening in Iraq” and backed out of the event that was to be held at the home of a former Yale classmate. (Washington Examiner)

-- Rudy Giuliani — and his old Iranian clients — are cheering Soleimani’s death. From the Daily Beast: “The former New York City mayor has had a long-standing interest in Iranian affairs. He was once paid by organizations linked to an Iranian dissident group formally designated by the U.S. government as a terrorist organization—until Giuliani helped get the outfit off the terror list. As recently as the summer of 2018, Giuliani appeared on stage at an event for the People's Mojahedin of Iran, known by its Farsi acronym, MEK. He’s stayed in touch with the group’s U.S. lobbyists, meeting with representatives of its political arm as recently as last fall. And when Trump authorized the strike that killed [Soleimani], Giuliani jubilantly referred to the MEK in the first person. Soleimani was ‘directly responsible for killing some of my MEK people,’ he (said) in an interview on Monday afternoon. ‘We don't like him very much.’”

-- Mike Pompeo ordered U.S. diplomats to limit any contact with Iranian opposition groups, including MEK, which has paid thousands of dollars in speaking fees to former national security adviser John Bolton in addition to retaining Giuliani. From Bloomberg News: “The directive about Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, its offshoot, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, and five other groups was delivered in a cable sent to all U.S. diplomatic outposts on Tuesday. ... It says meetings with the groups could jeopardize U.S. diplomacy with Iran. … But it provoked displeasure from some Iran hawks, who argued the U.S. should be encouraging contacts with such groups, not discouraging them.” 

-- Saudi authorities are warning of a powerful and destructive cyberattack launched on Dec. 29 that experts have tied to Iran. From Yahoo News: “Officials in Riyadh, who nicknamed the malware ‘Dustman,’ did not directly attribute the malicious attack to Iran, according to a Saudi technical report. … However, according to experts who reviewed the technical report and analyzed possible motivation and similarities to past attacks, Tehran is the most likely culprit. The ‘wiper’ attack, which was identified by the Saudi National Cybersecurity Authority, used malware to erase digital data belonging to unidentified targets in the Middle East.”

-- Joe Biden, facing scrutiny of his foreign policy record, sharpened his criticism of Trump’s “incompetence” on Iran. Matt Viser reports: “Biden, blasting [Trump] as ‘dangerously incompetent’ for his handling of the crisis with Iran, said Trump's ‘impulsive decision’ to order the killing of a top military official from that country put the United States at risk of greater international conflict. … Biden’s comments were striking for someone who has spent much of his political career with a reputation as a foreign policy expert who has often embraced American use of power in the world. As a senator, he voted in 2002 to authorize the use of force in Iraq — a vote that has become a point of contention in the Democratic race as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) presents himself as the true antiwar candidate in tune with rising public skepticism of drawn-out military intervention. … Biden’s toughened rhetoric on Trump and Iran on Tuesday seemed designed to present Biden with a more nuanced position — more sharply critical of Trump’s decision than his previous comments but not as black-and-white as Sanders’s stance.” 

-- Fox News’s Tucker Carlson has become one of Trump’s most vocal critics on Iran. Kayla Epstein reports: “Carlson has used his namesake show to criticize Trump, his military leaders and high-ranking foreign policy officials for their decision to strike. On Friday, the conservative pundit criticized ‘chest-beaters’ for ‘making the usual warlike noises.’ On Monday, he questioned why conservatives who were long suspicious of the military and intelligence community were suddenly trusting them on Iran. Carlson is not the only critic of Trump’s decision, but he is one of the loudest voices on the right. ... When Carlson broke with Trump on the issue of Iran, viewers, critics and Twitter observers took notice. ‘These anti-war segments from Tucker Carlson don’t mean he’s good now,’ former Barack Obama spokesman and ‘Pod Save America’ host Tommy Vietor tweeted."

-- Commentary from the opinion page:

  • Leon Panetta, former defense secretary and CIA director: “Trump is facing the greatest test of his presidency.”
  • Dana Milbank: “Trump to America: Impeachment and war are none of your business.”
  • Molly Roberts: “The terrible honesty of World War III memes.”
  • Helaine Olen: “Money for war, but not for the poor.”
  • Marc A. Thiessen: “Reagan would have been proud of Trump’s Iran strike.”
  • Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee: “Iran cannot afford an all-out war.”
  • Alexandra Petri: “This is a draft version of this column that was circulated by mistake.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Jan. 7 said he had the votes to begin the impeachment trial without a commitment to witnesses. (The Washington Post)

THE INVESTIGATIONS:

-- After Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) announced that he had enough votes to proceed with Trump’s impeachment trial without reaching an agreement on witnesses with Democrats, Nancy Pelosi said the impeachment articles still won’t go to the Senate until she learns more about how the trial would be conducted. Felicia Sonmez, Colby Itkowitz, John Wagner and Seung Min Kim report: “In a letter to Democratic lawmakers Tuesday night, Pelosi hinted that she would not submit the articles nor tap House impeachment managers — who will effectively serve as the prosecution in the Senate — until McConnell publicly releases the legislation that would detail the parameters and procedures for the trial. ‘Sadly, Leader McConnell has made clear that his loyalty is to the President and not the Constitution,’ Pelosi wrote in the letter to colleagues. ‘Leader McConnell has insisted that the approach under consideration is identical to those of the Clinton trial and that ‘fair is fair.’ This is simply not true. This process is not only unfair but designed to deprive Senators and the American people of crucial documents and testimony. Under the Clinton trial, witnesses were deposed.’” 

-- In his announcement, McConnell said he has the votes to begin the trial in the format that he and most of his members have long envisioned: opening arguments for both the House impeachment managers and Trump’s defense team, as well as time for senators to submit questions in writing. Seung Min Kim, Mike DeBonis and Rachael Bade report: “Under the majority leader’s plan, a decision on whether to call witnesses would be made once that first phase of the trial is over — a move announced Tuesday to put the pressure back on Pelosi amid simmering frustration from GOP senators over the speaker’s delay in sending the articles. That echoes the format of President [Bill] Clinton’s trial 21 years ago, and McConnell has been able to persuade his members that Trump should be treated in the same fashion as Clinton. 

"Asked if he could guarantee witnesses will be called, McConnell said that matter would be discussed after the Senate votes to proceed — not before. ‘The way it works, at the risk of being redundant, is that 51 senators determine what we do, and there will be, I’m sure, an intense discussion . . . about the whole witness issue,’ McConnell said. ‘The people calling the witnesses won’t necessarily be us; it will be the prosecution or the defense.’ … Pelosi’s refusal to transmit the articles ... has also spurred a number of Republican senators to craft legislation and strategize about how they could begin the trial without the House’s blessing. But McConnell, speaking privately to his members, made clear that he would not make any moves on a trial until the articles had been formally transmitted.” 

-- Federal prosecutors said former national security adviser Michael Flynn deserves to serve up to six months in prison, reversing their earlier recommendation that he should get probation after his attacks on the FBI and the Justice Department. Spencer S. Hsu and Rachel Weiner report: “The government revoked its request for leniency weeks after Flynn’s sentencing judge categorically rejected Flynn’s claims of prosecutorial misconduct and that he had been duped into pleading guilty to lying to FBI agents about his Russian contacts after the 2016 U.S. election. … Flynn faces sentencing Jan. 28 before U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan in Washington. Flynn defense attorney Sidney Powell is scheduled to file his sentencing request Jan. 22. … Flynn, 61, pleaded guilty Dec. 1, 2017, to lying about his communications with then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the presidential transition, becoming the highest-ranking Trump official charged and one of the first to cooperate with Mueller’s office.” 

-- A panel of judges ruled that a defamation lawsuit, alleging Trump sexually assaulted a former “Apprentice” contestant more than a decade ago, can be heard by New York’s highest state court. Joshua Partlow reports: “The decision by an appellate division of the New York Supreme Court granted Trump’s legal team’s request to have the case heard by the New York Court of Appeals. Trump’s team has argued that he should not be subject to actions in state courts while he is in the White House. Trump had been scheduled to give a deposition by Jan. 31, but that is now on hold. A statement from the firm of Trump’s lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, said, ‘we are pleased’ about the decision. The defamation lawsuit was brought by Summer Zervos. … Her case has been moving slowly through the New York courts and could potentially be decided before the 2020 election.”

-- A major donor to Trump’s inaugural committee intends to plead guilty to obstruction of justice after federal prosecutors filed a new charge alleging that the investor backdated a check and deleted emails to hinder an investigation into where he got money he ultimately gave to the committee. Matt Zapotosky reports: “Imaad Zuberi — a venture capitalist who gave significant money to Democrats and Republicans over the years — was accused by federal prosecutors in New York of trying to hide from investigators that a $900,000 donation he made to Trump’s inaugural committee was actually funded by others, court records show. Zuberi already had pleaded guilty last year in federal court in Los Angeles to an array of charges stemming from a lobbying scheme in which he arranged illegal campaign contributions, hid his work from the government and cheated on his taxes. David Kelley, Zuberi’s attorney, said he had reached an agreement with federal prosecutors in New York to transfer the new matter to Los Angeles, where Zuberi intends to plead guilty. Provided the arrangement is approved by the court, he would presumably be sentenced on the West Coast in connection with both matters.” 

-- Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) will resign from Congress effective Jan. 13, more than a month after he pleaded guilty in federal court to misusing campaign funds. Felicia Sonmez and Mike DeBonis report: “The six-term congressman is scheduled to be sentenced in March. He faces a maximum of five years in prison, although he is expected to serve less than one year. Hunter and his wife, Margaret, were charged in August 2018 with using more than $250,000 in campaign funds to pay for personal expenses including family vacations, theater tickets and school tuition. … Days after his guilty plea last month, the California Republican announced that he would resign from Congress ‘shortly after the holidays.’ The move meant he would collect one last full government paycheck, as House members get paid on the last business day of each month.”

A powerful 6.4-magnitude earthquake off Puerto Rico’s southwestern coast early Jan. 7 triggered a widespread blackout on the island and damaged homes. (The Washington Post)

DOMESTIC DEVELOPMENTS THAT SHOULDN'T BE OVERLOOKED: 

-- Powerful earthquakes in Puerto Rico have left the already fragile territory in a blackout with reports of injuries and at least one death. Cristina Corujo, Arelis R. Hernández and Samantha Schmidt report: “Powerful earthquakes this week, including a major 6.4-magnitude temblor early Tuesday morning, triggered widespread power outages and damage, leaving an already fragile Puerto Rico reeling once again. Schools, homes and churches along the southern coastline crumbled. Hospitals evacuated patients. A signature tourist attraction collapsed into the sea. At least one person died, crushed by a wall that toppled in his home. Tuesday's earthquake followed a 5.8-magnitude quake on Monday and was among numerous seismic events along an underwater fault line in recent days. All of them sent shock waves across the U.S. territory amid fears that further tremors could knock out key infrastructure. … Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced declared a state of emergency Tuesday and said authorities were evaluating the damage and inspecting Puerto Rico’s power generation plants — all of which are located along the southern coast near the origin of the seismic activity. She also told government employees to stay home, as more aftershocks are expected. …

“U.S. Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who chairs the committee that oversees U.S. territories including Puerto Rico, urged the Trump administration to release remaining federal disaster recovery funds from Hurricane Maria and deliver new aid quickly. ‘The Trump administration’s indifference and incompetence have already cost residents of Puerto Rico their lives and their livelihoods, and continuing that pattern now is completely unacceptable,’ Grijalva said in a statement. ‘I urge this administration to remember that lives are at stake and the public is watching.’”

­-- Mexicans seeking refuge in the United States to escape violence in their homeland fear even worse dangers if they are sent to Guatemala under a new Trump administration plan to crack down on asylum seekers. From Reuters: “It was unclear when the United States would begin sending Mexicans to Guatemala. The Mexican government estimated that 900 Mexican asylum seekers could be affected from February, without giving a timeframe or explaining how it reached that number. Mexicans who say their homes are unsafe due to drug gang extortion said the policy leaves them few options. ‘I can’t go home, they’ve already kidnapped my brother and son,’ said Carlos, a Mexican seeking to reach the United States via the border city of Tijuana. He said he had fled criminal gangs in the southwestern state of Guerrero. ‘They’re after me. If I go back they’re sure to kill me. If I’m not safe in Mexico, I’ll be even less safe in Guatemala,’ he said, requesting his last name be withheld for security reasons. … Sitting in a chilly camp in Ciudad Juarez, one woman from the state of Zacatecas, who declined to give her name, said she was trying to reach the United States because she had family there, and would be safe. ‘I’m not going because of the American dream, I’m going and taking my kids because we need security, we need safety,’ she said in tears, describing how she had fled a job as a scientist in a laboratory after she starting being followed and receiving phone threats. She described the new policy as pressure aimed at making people like her give up her asylum claim.”

-- The Los Angeles Police Department suspended more than a dozen officers after a boy was wrongly labeled a gang member. From the New York Times: “The Los Angeles Police Department opened an investigation early last year, when a mother in the San Fernando Valley approached a local police station to tell officers about a letter she had received saying that her son, a minor, had been identified as a gang member. She told a supervisor that he had been mislabeled, the Police Department said in a statement on Tuesday. … When the supervisor reviewed body camera footage and car recordings, they did not match the documentation completed by an officer, according to the department. Over the following months, the investigation grew to encompass more than a dozen officers in the elite metro division who were suspected of misrepresenting information in field interview cards, the Police Department said. … But the issues with incorrectly labeling people gang members extend far beyond falsifying field notes, according to Sean Garcia-Leys, a lawyer at the Urban Peace Institute. He said he had had dozens of clients over the past two years who had been wrongly added to CalGang.” 

-- The cancer death rate in the United States fell 2.2 percent in 2017 – the biggest one-year drop ever – propelled by gains against lung cancer, the American Cancer Society said. Laurie McGinley reports: “Declines in the mortality rate for lung cancer have accelerated in recent years in response to new treatments and falling smoking rates, said Rebecca Siegel, lead author of Cancer Statistics 2020. … Because lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths, accounting for 1 in 4, any change in the mortality rate has a large effect on the overall cancer death rate, Siegel noted.  She described the gains against lung cancer, and against another often deadly cancer, melanoma, as ‘exciting.’ But, she added, ‘the news this year is mixed’ because of slower progress against colorectal, breast and prostate cancers.”

-- In an internal post, Facebook executive Andrew Bosworth said the company was responsible for Trump’s 2016 victory and that it may help him win again this year. But he argued executives must resist the temptation to make changes that could alter the course of legitimate political debate. Craig Timberg and Nitasha Tiku report: “The post ... reflected the combination of anguish, defensiveness and brash self-confidence that many of the company’s employees have more privately expressed in the difficult aftermath of Trump’s unexpected victory. Bosworth’s post also shed light on the thinking within the company’s highest levels as it heads into a new election year amid controversies over its reluctance to police lies by politicians or limit their ability to narrowly target small groups of voters. Critics have said that addressing both issues is key to helping stanch the flood of disinformation on the platform. … 

"Bosworth dismissed the idea that Russian efforts to manipulate U.S. voters over Facebook, a subject of extensive government investigation and journalistic scrutiny, were crucial to Trump’s victory. Bosworth, who shared his post publicly after the New York Times published it, also played down the importance of the use of Facebook data by the political consultancy Cambridge Analytica, which worked for the Trump campaign and boasted of its ability to target ads using psychological profiles of voters derived from their social media posts. Rather, said Bosworth, who ran advertising at Facebook for several years,  Trump ‘got elected because he ran the single best digital ad campaign I’ve ever seen from any advertiser. Period.’ Bosworth, a self-proclaimed liberal who donated heavily to 2016 Democratic Party nominee Hillary Clinton, particularly praised Trump’s leading digital-advertising adviser in 2016, Brad Parscale, who is now managing Trump’s reelection campaign. … 

"Citing J.R.R.'s Tolkien 'Lord of the Rings' epic, Bosworth also expressed serious concern about the possible corrupting influence of Facebook’s power, comparing it to the ring carried by the hobbit Frodo Baggins. ‘I find myself thinking of the Lord of the Rings at this moment. Specifically when Frodo offers the ring to Galadrial and she imagines using the power righteously, at first, but knows it will eventually corrupt her. As tempting as it is to use the tools available to us to change the outcome, I am confident we must never do that or we will become that which we fear,’ [he wrote]."

-- Ivanka Trump’s keynote address at CES — one of the world’s largest technology conferences — sparked backlash. Cat Zakrzewski reports: “The first daughter’s keynote speech at CES made a pitch for programs that would help blue-collar workers keep pace with a rapidly evolving economy and addressed strategies to re-skill workers, develop apprenticeships and invest in science and technology education programs. Trump has focused on workforce development in her work as adviser to the president, and she serves with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross as the co-chair of the National Council for the American Worker. … Inside the room, her comments drew applause. But the inclusion of Trump in the speaker lineup sparked some backlash in the tech industry, as critics said there are women with more technical experience who are better qualified to speak there. Hundreds of people have tweeted #boycottCES since the conference organizers announced Trump would speak at the show late last month, including on Tuesday. Some were particularly critical because the conference drew widespread criticism in both 2017 and 2018 for failing to bring in female keynote speakers, part of a longer track record.” 

-- The Supreme Court ordered the Trump administration and states challenging Obamacare to respond by Friday to an appeal filed by defenders of the health-care law. From NBC News: “Such a highly abbreviated timeline — the rules normally allow a month for filing a response — gives the court the option to take up the case during its current term, which would mean a ruling on a contentious issue this spring, just as the presidential campaign heats up. Nineteen blue states, led by California, asked the Supreme Court last week for a quick decision on whether to take the case. They're appealing last month's ruling by a federal appeals court that said Obamacare's individual mandate is unconstitutional and that the rest of the law cannot survive without it.” 

-- Harvey Weinstein was threatened with jail for repeatedly using his cellphone while in court during the second day of his New York trial on sexual assault charges. From CNN: “At the beginning of court proceedings in New York, Judge James Burke raised his voice and reprimanded Weinstein and his defense team, specifically Arthur Aidala, for Weinstein's use of his cell phones. ‘He was calling and texting a minute ago,’ Burke said to the defense team. Weinstein said, ‘I'm sorry’ and hung his head at one point. Donna Rotunno, another defense attorney, said she was not aware. ‘He was aware,’ the judge replied. Burke said this was an ‘ongoing issue’ and referenced warnings at previous hearings. He said he warned Aidala explicitly in ‘somewhat unrefined terms’ about Weinstein's cell phone. Finally, he said that if Weinstein uses his cell phone in court one more time he will be taken into custody. ‘Mr. Aidala, this is on you if he blows it,’ Burke said.” 

-- The Secret Service is investigating yet another incident at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club. From the Miami Herald: “Palm Beach police say they are conducting an ‘open and active criminal investigation’ at the club. …The Secret Service is leading the investigation and no arrest has been made, according to the Palm Beach Police Department. ‘During an encounter with local law enforcement, an individual made non-threatening statements about a person under Secret Service protection,’ a law enforcement official with knowledge of the incident told the Miami Herald. ‘As part of standard practice, Palm Beach police contacted the local Secret Service office.’”

SOCIAL MEDIA SPEED READ:

As the situation with Iran escalates, it is worth remembering that many key positions in the administration remain unfilled: 

Trump met with representatives of the Saudi government:

Flashback:

When Trump eventually tweeted about the meeting, he made no mention of Jamal Khashoggi:

The U.N.’s agency for culture appeared to subtweet Trump: 

An Iranian official tweeted his nation’s flag just after the strikes, mirroring Trump, who tweeted the U.S. flag after Soleimani was killed:

Geraldo Rivera said he was going to speak out against Iran escalation on Sean Hannity's show, but then he got bumped:

QUOTE OF THE DAY: 

“Nazis didn’t fall out of the sky in January ’33. That movement is rooted in German history, and you can trace those roots back into the 19th century, and you can see a lot of strands coming together. That’s true of the moment we live in. It didn’t just happen yesterday or last year,” Holocaust Museum director Sara Bloomfield said on the warning signs of fascism. (Rachel Manteuffel
 

VIDEOS OF THE DAY:

A Border Patrol officer described what it was like to separate migrant children from their parents in a Frontline documentary: 

This is what 2020 candidates have said about the escalating tensions with Iran:

Democratic candidates in the 2020 presidential election have been vocal in calling out President Trump’s actions in Iran that have heightened tensions. (The Washington Post)

Trump once said he likes to obey the law, but Stephen Colbert said he isn’t so sure about that:

Seth Meyers moderated a “debate” between some 2020 Democratic candidates: