With Mariana Alfaro

THE BIG IDEA: President Trump didn’t just dubiously blame Barack Obama’s nuclear deal for Iran’s retaliatory missile strikes against U.S. targets in Iraq. In his televised address on Wednesday, he also implicitly criticized six of his predecessors for being too soft on Tehran.

“For far too long, all the way back to 1979, to be exact, nations have tolerated Iran’s destructive and destabilizing behavior in the Middle East and beyond,” Trump said. “Those days are over.”

This section of Trump’s speech was overshadowed by his declaration that “Iran appears to be standing down.” Because the scripted remarks were less bellicose than what the president had said in preceding days, and he is clearly looking for an offramp, pundits emphasized the conciliatory tone. Much of the cable commentary focused more on the olive branch – his stated desire to seek peace and de-escalation – than the stick, which was his announcement that the United States will impose stiffer sanctions until the regime changes its behavior.

The past few weeks have brought a flood of references to 1979. The Islamic revolution in Iran led to 52 Americans being taken hostage for 444 days at the U.S. embassy, torpedoing Jimmy Carter’s reelection hopes the next year after that botched rescue operation. Many Americans of a certain age experienced fears of a redux when the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad was surrounded last week by Iran-backed militias, who pelted the fortress with rocks and flaming gasoline bombs before retreating.

But the year 1979 turned out to be a critical juncture in geopolitical history for a host of other reasons. The Soviets invaded Afghanistan, resulting in the quagmire that accelerated their consignment to the ash heap of history. Deng Xiaoping put China on a path to become a dominant world power. Margaret Thatcher’s election as prime minister reoriented the United Kingdom. So much of the world as we know it today flows from events big and small that transpired 41 years ago. 

Unresolved loose ends stemming from the fall of the American-backed shah in 1979 fill the air like dark clouds over the relationship with Iran. He was elevated after the United States helped orchestrate the 1953 coup to overthrow the democratically elected prime minister of Iran. The Persians remember this.

“The U.S. enmity toward Iran is not temporary. It’s inherent,” Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in his own televised address on Wednesday, telling his countrymen that they had delivered a slap in the face to the Americans. He added that there won’t be peace until the Americans withdraw from the Middle East. “It is a gross mistake to think if we took a step back and compromised, the United States would stop,” said Khamenei.

-- The experiences of 1979 also indelibly shaped the worldviews of multiple generations of American leaders. Consider the case of Jim Mattis. Mattis, who would become a famous general during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, was first deployed to the Middle East that year when he was a 28-year-old Marine. “Much of the security challenge we deal with today grew out of 1979,” Mattis wrote in “Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead,” his 2019 memoir. “When crises arose, American naval task forces were placed on alert and sailed to the region of unrest. With the intelligence officers providing in-depth briefings, I had a ringside seat from which to observe how quickly flashpoints spread across the increasingly violent arena."

Mattis remembers sitting on an amphibious ship as Saudi Arabia eradicated a radical Sunni splinter group that had seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca that year and closely monitoring the developments in Afghanistan and Iran. “The United States was supporting Saudi Arabia’s involvement in forming a counterweight to Soviet influence,” he wrote. “The reverberations of these cataclysmic events were swiftly felt: within a year, Iraq President Saddam Hussein had launched an inconclusive eight-year war against Iran that would claim nearly a million lives.”

During his nearly two years as Trump’s first secretary of defense, Mattis – a hawk himself – checked Trump’s most confrontational instincts. He saw the 2015 nuclear agreement as a bad deal in many respects, but he tried unsuccessfully to convince Trump that it was better to stay in the deal than to tear it up. Mattis was clear-eyed about the threat posed by the Iranians, but he understood the risks of escalation.

In May 2017, Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen fired a ballistic missile at Riyadh as Trump was preparing to leave for Saudi Arabia on his first overseas trip as president. “The president pressed for options from the Pentagon, including striking Iranian missile factories or hitting Iranian speedboats that routinely harassed U.S. naval vessels, and a plan to kill [Qasem] Soleimani,” Karen DeYoung reports in today’s newspaper. “When the Pentagon, under the leadership of [Mattis], demurred, the options were not pursued. … Events leading to the current crisis were not set in motion until May 2018, when Trump finally took action to withdraw the United States from the Iran nuclear deal.”

One reason the Pentagon relented post-Mattis in its hesitation to take out Soleimani – and risk the fallout – is Mark Esper. The new defense secretary is a longtime friend of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was a classmate at West Point and has pushed for months to kill the Quds Force commander. Esper is 14 years younger than Mattis and joined the Army in 1986.

“Taking out Soleimani would not have happened under Mattis,” a senior administration official told one of my colleagues over the weekend, arguing that he was risk averse. “Mattis was opposed to all of this. It’s not a hit on Mattis. It’s just his predisposition.” Mattis declined to comment when asked if he agreed.

Referring to 1979, Mattis wrote in his book: “The reverberations of that tumultuous year continue to be felt today. As a young infantry officer sailing back to Pearl Harbor from the North Arabian Sea, I didn’t know then that these tectonic shifts would define my next 40 years.”


-- “The Iranian missile strike on American facilities in Iraq was a calibrated event intended to cause minimal casualties, give the Iranians a face-saving measure and provide an opportunity for both sides to step back from the brink of war, according to senior U.S. officials in Washington and the Middle East,” per Shane Harris, Josh Dawsey, Dan Lamothe and Missy Ryan. “U.S. officials said they knew by Tuesday afternoon that the Iranians intended to strike at American targets in Iraq, although it was not immediately clear exactly which they would choose. The early warning came from intelligence sources as well as from communications from Iraq that conveyed Iran’s intentions to launch the strike … 

The advance warning gave military commanders time to get U.S. troops into safe, fortified positions at the bases. … One official said at least some left al-Asad air base in western Iraq before the attack. … Commanders on the ground … also moved some service members off small bases in the region and scattered equipment and people on installations to make them harder to hit. …

Matt Pottinger, the deputy national security adviser, told aides in a Roosevelt Room meeting Tuesday afternoon that it would take at least two months to understand whether the U.S. strategy was working. ‘Our initial reaction has been, this was a domestic effort from the Iranians to save face, not to go to war, so we have proceeded in that vein,’ said another senior administration official with knowledge of the analysis. … Trump had told senior military officials Tuesday evening that he wanted a path to ease tensions … A way out appeared when Trump’s military advisers told him there was reason to believe the missile strikes were not designed to kill Americans.”

-- “Trump’s vow Wednesday to slap new sanctions on Iran probably would target a broader range of Iranian commercial institutions and government officials,” David Lynch reports. “But with the economy already convulsed by earlier U.S. enforcement actions, any new financial punishments are likely to be largely symbolic.”


-- The House will vote this afternoon on a war powers resolution. It is expected to pass on a close to party-line vote but not have the force of law. 

-- Two Republican senators criticized the Trump administration’s handling of the drone strike that killed Soleimani after top national security officials refused to say when, if ever, they would notify Congress about future military strikes during a contentious classified briefing. “They struggled to identify anything,” said Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), calling this “un-American” and “unconstitutional” during an appearance with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). “As a result of the briefing, Lee pledged, along with Paul, to join Democrats in backing a war powers resolution from Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) ordering the removal of forces engaged in hostilities against Iran, which could come up for a vote early next week,” Karoun Demirjian and Mike DeBonis report.

-- Stat du jour: Nearly a quarter of Americans have never experienced the United States in a time of peace. (Philip Bump)


-- From our team coverage:

-- Commentary from The Post's opinion pages:

  • The Post’s Editorial Board: “Proclaiming Trump victorious in Iran is shortsighted and premature.”
  • Max Boot: “Trump’s Iran strategy is still a failure.”
  • Jennifer Rubin: “Trump’s war-mongering with Iran won’t be a political winner.”
  • Michael Makovsky and Jonathan Ruhe of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America: “The right strategy for Iran isn’t regime change. It’s regime collapse.”
  • Layla M. Hashemi, managing editor of the Journal of Civil Society, and Steven L. Wilson, assistant professor of political science at the University of Nevada at Reno: “If any Iranians supported Soleimani’s killing, it would’ve been dissidents on Twitter. The opposite happened.”
  • Kelly J. Shannon, associate professor of history at Florida Atlantic University: “War with Iran is not inevitable — but the U.S. must change course.”
  • Moojan Momen and Jason Pack: “Why President Trump is courting disaster by not understanding Iranian culture.”

-- How it’s playing domestically:

  • MSNBC: Andrea Mitchell, the veteran NBC foreign affairs correspondent, said Trump has “the worst national security team I’ve ever seen.”
  • BuzzFeed News: “Fox News hosts were against a ground war with Iran. Trump listened.”
  • Wired: “Did Twitter help stop war with Iran?”
  • Fox News’s Andrew McCarthy: “War Powers Resolution vote against Trump is pointless. He was right to strike bad guys.”
  • NPR: “Satellite photos reveal extent of damage from Iranian strike on air base in Iraq.”
  • NYT: “Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren jointly urge against war with Iran.”
  • The Atlantic: “Americans aren't rallying to Trump.”
  • Daily Beast: “U.S. officials raise concerns Shiite militia threat might be worse without Soleimani.”

-- How it's playing overseas:

  • Jerusalem Post: “Did Trump just reignite Iran v. ISIS war?”
  • Haaretz: “Iran Still Wants Revenge for Soleimani's Killing. But Does It Have the Cash for It?”
  • Agence France Presse: “Soleimani successor: continuity figure in uncertain times.”
  • Tehran Times: “Soleimani was a ‘culture’ and a culture cannot be assassinated.”
  • Der Spiegel: “The adjourned war.”
  • The Guardian: “The threat of conflict in Iran is still real, and Britain must not get dragged in.”


-- A probe into the crash of a Ukrainian passenger jet that killed 176 shortly after takeoff from the Tehran airport is underway, with Iran pointing to a possible aircraft malfunction and Ukraine leaving open other paths of inquiry. Isabelle Khurshudyan, Erin Cunningham and Sarah Dadouch report: “At least one U.S.-based aviation expert said it appeared the plane was ‘not intact’ before it hit the ground. And a former Federal Aviation Administration accident investigation chief, Jeff Guzzetti, said the crash carried ‘all the earmarks of an intentional act.’ … Iranian authorities said ‘technical’ problems were probably behind the crash of the Ukrainian Boeing 737-800. Ukraine's embassy in Tehran initially concurred, issuing a statement ruling out terrorism and suggesting likely engine failure. It later took down the statement without explanation, raising questions about whether different scenarios — including an external cause such as a missile — were being explored as potential reasons for the crash. ... Gen. Abolfazl Shekarchi, an Iranian armed forces spokesman, said ‘rumors’ that a missile brought down the plane were ‘completely false.’ The Ukrainian Embassy said that a commission was investigating the crash and that ‘any statements about the causes of the accident before the decision of the commission are not official.’ … 

Todd Curtis, an aviation safety analyst for the website AirSafe.com and a former Boeing safety engineer who assisted in accident investigations, said it appeared — based only on video and photos from the crash site — that the plane was coming apart before it hit the ground. ‘The wreckage pattern was very consistent with a plane that was not intact when it hit the ground,’ he said. …. This means the crash could have been caused by an in-flight breakup, in-flight explosion, midair collision, structural failure, external strike or major system malfunction with the aircraft, Curtis said. The head of Iran’s Civil Aviation Organization, Ali Abedzadeh, said that Iran would not send the recorders to the United States and that the investigation would be led by Iran, Mehr News Agency reported.” 

-- A list of names and birth dates of the flight’s victims has been shared by the airline, capturing the human scale of the loss. Amanda Coletta, Jennifer Hassan and Miriam Berger report: “Some of the victims had barely begun their lives: Thirteen were younger than 10. Two were born in 2014, another in 2016 and one in 2018. Many victims shared the same last name, a sign they were probably traveling with family. Almost half of the passengers were born in 1990 or after. ... At least two couples were newlyweds. … The Ukrainian flight was popular among Iranians traveling to Canada because there haven’t been direct flights between the two countries since 2012, when Canada broke off diplomatic relations. The route was also popular with Iranian nationals studying in Canada because they cannot catch connecting flights in the United States as a result of U.S. immigration policies, said Payman Parseyan, a member of the Iranian Canadian community in Edmonton.” 

­-- The Boeing 737-800, unlike the 737 Max, has a relatively solid safety record. Taylor Telford and Douglas MacMillan report: “The Iran crash was the 10th fatal accident of a Boeing 737 NG plane in its commercial life ... The plane has had about 0.06 fatal events per million flights, the lowest rate among modern aircraft that have flown for several years … The plane has faced recent regulatory scrutiny. In early October, the Federal Aviation Administration told airlines to inspect more than 1,900 Boeing jets after cracks were found in some of the aircraft’s wings. Dozens of them were later grounded after cracks were found in a part of the plane that connects the wings to the fuselage.”

-- Two earthquakes struck Iran near the Bushehr nuclear power plant. Brittany Shammas reports: “A 4.9-magnitude quake occurred around 9 a.m., local time, followed by a 4.5-magnitude aftershock 30 minutes later. Iranian state media reported there were no casualties and rescue teams were at the scene in the southern part of the country. The first earthquake hit at a depth of about 6 miles, according to the United States Geological Survey. People who felt the earthquake around the site reported light shaking. The nuclear plant was designed to withstand quakes up to magnitude-9. Iran is on major seismic faults and frequently experiences earthquakes. Its hard, mountainous landscape can prevent damage from mild to moderate earthquakes.”

-- And at least 19 Iranians were killed after a bus plunged into a ravine about 80 miles east of Tehran. A pregnant woman and four children under the age of 6 were among the victims, the BBC reports.

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-- A turf war is raging behind the scenes between House and Senate Republicans over who will defend Trump during the impeachment trial. Rachael Bade, Carol D. Leonnig and Josh Dawsey report: “House GOP leaders in recent weeks have advocated for Trump’s most aggressive defenders — Republican Reps. Jim Jordan (Ohio), John Ratcliffe (Tex.) and Douglas A. Collins (Ga.) — to … help White House counsel Pat A. Cipollone rebut the two charges that the president abused his power and obstructed Congress. Trump, partial to bare-knuckles tactics and top-rated TV performances, loves the idea, according to four administration and congressional officials. … But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and his fellow GOP senators have expressed concerns to Trump that a House-led defense could offend moderates, including Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). Trump, they argue, has already won the backing of the GOP base, so he and his team need to focus on ensuring Republican unity on an acquittal.

McConnell, who discussed the trial with the president at the White House on Wednesday, has been advising Trump and his legal team not to think of the trial as a ‘made-for-TV-type House setting.’ … Others in the GOP have publicly suggested House Republicans may lack the right temperament to be persuasive for a Senate constituency that expects a no-nonsense trial. ‘One thing I’m not eager to do is re-create the circuslike atmosphere of the House — that’s not what we’re going to do here, if we can avoid it,’ said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), a McConnell ally. ‘So I think it seems obvious to me that if the president picks a team that does not include House members, that we’d be more likely to have the dignified process that the Constitution calls for.’ … 

Senior administration and House GOP officials indicated Wednesday that no final decision had been made. … ‘There are a lot of rabbits running around claiming to be the very best bunny, but the president hasn’t yet decided which set of fuzzy tails he’ll use,’ said one official. …”

-- A growing chorus of Senate Democrats is souring on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's strategy and demanding she transmit the articles of impeachment to the Senate. Felicia Sonmez, John Wagner and Colby Itkowitz report: “Pelosi said Wednesday evening she would not be sending the articles of impeachment to the Senate [that night] and refused to engage on when she might do so. ‘Do you listen when I speak?’ she asked when a reporter in the Capitol asked her whether she planned to send them ‘anytime soon.’ ‘I said when we saw what the arena is that we would be sending members in, then we would send over the articles,’ Pelosi said. … ‘We haven’t seen that, so I don’t know how many more times I have to say that and how many times you want to ask it.’ … [Cornyn] put out a news release Wednesday afternoon that highlighted a half-dozen Democratic senators who have said publicly in recent days that a trial should begin soon. The most recent among them was Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), who, according to a Bloomberg News reporter, said, ‘If we’re going to do it, she should send them over. I don’t see what good delay does.’” 

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Democrats are holding open the option of calling in former national security adviser John Bolton to testify in the House but are waiting to see whether he will be summoned as a witness in the Senate: “Hoyer also defended Pelosi’s delay in sending the articles of impeachment to the Senate. … He also said that the timing of the process wouldn’t be dictated by the early presidential nominating contests. Several senators could be stuck in Washington serving as jurors as their Democratic rivals campaign in the weeks ahead of caucuses and primaries."

-- Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) makes the case for a Senate trial that includes witnesses in an op-ed for USA Today: "We are not asking for critics of the president to serve as witnesses in a trial. We are asking that the president’s men — his top advisers — tell their story, and for the Senate to have access to the documents that will shed light on the truth."

-- The State Department released additional Ukraine documents in response to a FOIA lawsuit, per American Oversight: “The production includes several heavily redacted emails from senior State Department officials. Among the documents are a letter sent to former Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch instructing her not to testify. … Wednesday’s release is also notable for what is missing — specifically, any written record of communications between top State Department officials and Trump personal attorney Rudy Giuliani.”

-- Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is working behind the scenes to delay a Democratic effort requiring the Secret Service to disclose how much it spends protecting Trump and his family when they travel until after the 2020 election. These disclosures would highlight the millions in taxpayer dollars that have been paid out directly to Trump's private businesses, which the president still owns. Carol D. Leonnig and David A. Fahrenthold report: “The issue has emerged as a sticking point in recent weeks as Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and key senators have been negotiating draft legislation to move the Secret Service back to his department, its historic home. … Mnuchin has agreed to Democrats’ push for a requirement that the Secret Service report its travel expenses but wants such disclosures to begin after the election. ...

During the 2016 campaign, Trump promised to ‘rarely leave the White House’ and cut back on what he called wasteful travel by [Obama]. Since taking office, however, Trump has made more than 50 visits to his properties outside the Washington area. …  The government spent about $96 million on travel by Obama over eight years. … A report by the Government Accountability Office … estimated that Trump’s travel cost $13.6 million in just one month in early 2017. … If spending continued at that pace, Trump would have exceeded Obama’s total expenses before the end of his first year in office. 

The extensive international business travel and vacations of his grown children, with Secret Service agents in tow, as well as the expense the Secret Service incurs to secure numerous Trump properties, have added to the agency’s financial strain, according to its budget requests. Since their father was elected, Trump’s sons Eric and Donald Jr. have made business trips to overseas locales including Ireland, Scotland, Dubai, Uruguay and India. In 2017, Eric Trump’s visit to a Trump building under construction in Uruguay cost taxpayers $97,000.”

-- Companies interested in currying favor with Trump by buying the lease rights to his Washington hotel have until Jan. 23 to submit initial bids. Jonathan O’Connell reports: The president’s “company hired to market the hotel, JLL, emailed potential bidders with a ‘call for offers’ asking that they submit a proposed purchase price, the name of the hotel chain that would operate the hotel, names of investors and how long it would take to close a deal ... Interested buyers are also encouraged to schedule tours of the building before the deadline, according to the materials.”


-- A North Dakota county accepted refugees, but the debate over the decision is far from over. Maria Sacchetti and Ann E. Marimow report: “Jim Peluso, now in his 14th year as a Burleigh County commissioner, knows which roads need fresh gravel, how to collect taxes and when to approve permits for Bingo games. He does not know much about refugees. … They were hardly a topic of conversation here until September, when [Trump] issued an executive order saying that state and local officials must agree in writing to welcome refugees or the U.S. government would not send them. … Deciding whether to be among the first places in the United States to deny additional refugees under Trump’s new rule narrowly divided this county on the banks of the Missouri River … Amid the uncertainty of the new rule, resettlement agencies have been scrambling to secure permission from localities, including some, like Burleigh, that have welcomed refugees for decades. The agencies must obtain approval letters by Jan. 21 if refugees are to start arriving in June. … North Dakota’s governor is among several Republicans who agreed to take refugees. But in Burleigh, home to the state capital of Bismarck, the decision degenerated into jeering, insults and heated online posts. … The debate raged for days. Longtime residents say the county is friendly, tightknit, sometimes suspicious of newcomers and resistant to change.” 

-- A Mexican asylum-seeker slit his own throat on a bridge across the Rio Grande after being denied entry into the United States. From Reuters: “The man, who has not been identified, tried to enter the United States at the Pharr–Reynosa International Bridge between the Mexican border city of Reynosa and Pharr, Texas. ... Around 5 p.m. local time, the man drew a knife and cut his throat when denied access to the United States. Both officials said the man was seeking asylum. … The attorney general’s office for the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, where Reynosa lies, said it was investigating the man’s death.”

-- The White House wants to change environmental rules in order to speed up highway projects, pipelines and more. Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis report: “The proposed changes would narrow the scope of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires federal agencies to assess the impact of a major project before a spade of dirt is turned and to include the public in the process. Environmental groups, tribal activists and others have used the law to delay or block a slew of infrastructure, mining, logging and drilling projects since it was signed by President Richard Nixon in 1970. Industry has long complained about the process, however, prompting [Trump] to note in a statement on NEPA’s 50th anniversary on Jan. 1 that it ‘can increase costs, derail important projects, and threaten jobs for American workers and labor union members.’ The White House proposal will almost certainly face legal challenges.”

-- Puerto Ricans, fearing more earthquakes, are fleeing damaged structures as hundreds of families finds themselves homeless because of the latest natural disaster to roil the U.S. territory. Arelis R. Hernández and Cristina Corujo report: “The help has arrived, but the uncertainty again has set in. PREPA restored electricity to about 600,000 customers — less than a third of the island’s population — on Wednesday. But the progress was offset by news that damage to the island’s primary generation station, Costa Sur, was worse than expected. It could be a year before it returns to full power capacity, and authorities said they were working on solutions. But as long as the earth keeps moving, problems will persist. … The displaced townspeople are up before dawn, heading to gas stations or any open shop hoping to buy bread or something else to eat. By midmorning, people return to their homes to find more clothes, salvage belongings or reflect on what they already have lost. They pack their cars with blankets and pillows and head back to the camp by sundown for another restless night. Not every home in Guánica and Guayanilla’s barrios is compromised, but until authorities can evaluate each structure and the tremors stop, few families are risking it.”

-- Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg declared that she is “cancer free,” beating the disease for the fourth time after undergoing treatment for pancreatic cancer. CNN reported that she sounded "energized" and spoke "animatedly." (Colby Itkowitz)

-- Deaths of despair: Major drugstore chains are suing doctors, claiming they are the real culprits in the opioid epidemic that continues to ravage working-class families. Lenny Bernstein reports: “CVS, Walgreen Co., Walmart, Rite Aid and other major pharmacy chains said opioid prescribers bear responsibility for the prescription narcotic crisis, but unlike the drugstores, have not been sued by Cuyahoga and Summit counties [in Ohio]. In legal papers filed Monday, they contended that doctors and other prescribers should have to pay some of the penalty if the drugstore chains are found liable at trial. … Drug manufacturers and distributors agreed or were ordered to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements and one court verdict reached in state and federal courts last year. But the big pharmacy chains have not been held liable so far.” 

-- Alcohol-related deaths in this country have more than doubled over the past 20 years, according to a new government study. From Fox News: “‘Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research’ found alcohol-related deaths per year shot up from 35,914 in 1999 to 72,558 in 2017. Given reports that death certificates often fail to indicate alcohol as a cause of death, the actual number is likely higher. Researchers at the National Center for Health Statistics looked at death certificates from 1999 to 2017 and found the rate of alcohol-related death increased 50.9 percent, from 16.9 to 25.5 per 100,000. This equates to nearly 1 million lives lost over the 18-year span. In 2017 alone, 2.6 percent of deaths in the United States were alcohol-related. Nearly half of the alcohol-related deaths were the result of liver disease or overdoses.”

-- Facebook won’t limit political ad targeting or stop false claims under its new advertising rules. Tony Romm, Isaac Stanley-Becker and Craig Timberg report: “Facebook said it would address those concerns by giving users a choice to see fewer ads about political candidates and social issues, a policy it plans to roll out in the summer. Users can also choose to stop seeing ads from campaigns and other entities, including businesses, that target them using custom lists of data, such as their email addresses. … Going forward, Facebook said users will be able to limit organizations — many of which they may not know by name — that help businesses and political campaigns target them with ads using the custom audiences tool. Conversely, people can choose to opt into seeing ads that were not targeted to them, Facebook said, if users think they were wrongly excluded.”

-- Teen Vogue published a bizarrely positive story about Facebook’s “fight” against misinformation ahead of the 2020 presidential election. Then it removed it without explanation. Reis Thebault reports: “The ‘article,’ published online Wednesday by Teen Vogue, appeared without a byline and read more like a 2,000-word news release than a piece of journalism, prompting some to ask whether Facebook had paid to place it. In the ensuing hours, a befuddling back-and-forth followed, featuring a mysterious retraction, an apology and a pair of statements parceled out by company spokespeople. None of it clarified the article’s origins, but it did begin a conversation about an online news environment where advertising and editorial content sometimes swirl together, and powerful corporations pay big to bolster their brands.”

-- In a fun read, Jada Yuan speaks with several spouses of Democratic presidential candidates about playing the role, from Andrew Yang's homemaker wife to Amy Klobuchar's law professor husband: "While the candidates are competitors, the spouses are often spending long hours waiting in the wings together… It’s a little like the long Oscars season, or maybe even high school, in that unlikely friendships form from frequency of exposure and the shared experience of being a plus one. … According to Bernie Sanders’s wife Jane, the vibe is far more collegial than in 2016. But, calling other spouses ‘friends’ is a bit of a stretch, she says. ‘It’s more of good acquaintances,’ and there’s ‘often a big hug,’ she says.”

-- “Inside Elizabeth Warren’s effort to court her vanquished rivals — and why it’s worth her time,” by Annie Linskey and Amy B Wang: “Warren had just finished hiking in Washington’s North Cascades mountains in August when she dropped in for lunch with the state’s Democratic governor, Jay Inslee, who had recently left the presidential race and whose endorsement she was seeking. After Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York dropped out in late August, Warren talked to her about family leave issues over tea. When Sen. Kamala D. Harris of California ended her White House bid in December, Warren was one of the first to call. And Warren became so close with Julián Castro that they chatted over the holidays about a possible endorsement even before he officially bowed out of the race. Warren’s courtship of her onetime rivals is more than just flattery. It’s a quiet part of a strategy that’s becoming more urgent: to craft an image as a consensus candidate. …

After speaking with Harris in December, Warren adopted part of her signature plan on abortion. … Warren amended her campaign website to praise Gillibrand, calling her a ‘a tireless advocate’ on family leave. … In the days and weeks after Inslee dropped out, Warren was among several candidates exploring a potential endorsement from him. … Some of the candidates had perfunctory conversations with Inslee, while others reiterated broad areas of agreement without getting into details. … [Warren] stood out by focusing on the nuances of Inslee’s plan to eliminate carbon emissions from buildings, power plants and vehicles over the course of a decade. She hired one of Inslee’s staffers who focused on climate issues, and she credited the governor when she unveiled her own policy in September. … Inslee has not endorsed a candidate in the Democratic primary, but he does regularly praise Warren.”

-- Pete Buttigieg, who has struggled to attract support from African Americans, won his first endorsement from a black member of Congress: Rep. Anthony G. Brown of Maryland. (Chelsea Janes)

-- Six million Democratic donors gave $1 billion last year through the fundraising platform ActBlue. (Michelle Ye Hee Lee)


-- In a shock announcement, Britain’s Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, said they will “step back” from their roles as senior members of the royal family to become “financially independent” and split their time between Britain and North America. William Booth and Karla Adam report: “Such a move abroad, away from the strictures of Buckingham Palace and its many duties, would be bold and remarkable, signaling that two of the younger, more popular royals may be fed up with an anachronistic, cosseted life of endless ribbon-cutting and fusty, scripted engagements — and the scrutiny that comes with all of that. … The globally famous couple … have complained bitterly of being pursued by the British tabloids. … In a post on their Instagram account, the couple said they made the decision to distance themselves from palace life ‘after many months of reflection and internal discussions.’ … A statement from Buckingham Palace prompted speculation that the queen may not have been fully informed of the decision before the announcement.” [Literally, it's palace intrigue.]

-- How it's playing across the pond, via the Guardian of London: “The Sun gives us the Twitter hashtag headline for the day with ‘Megxit,’ and says the Queen is upset but princes Charles and William are ‘incandescent with rage.’ … The Daily Mail’s poster-style front page speaks of the ‘Queen’s fury’ at the revelation in its royal bombshell special issue. … The Mirror says simply: ‘They didn’t even tell the Queen.’ It quotes a source saying: ‘They are showing complete disregard for the institution.’ … The Telegraph says: ‘Harry and Meghan quit the Firm.’”

-- Europe and Britain are preparing to launch a fresh round of Brexit talks. William Booth and Michael Birnbaum report: “The new president of the European Commission [warned] British Prime Minister Boris Johnson that it would probably be ‘impossible’ for the two sides to complete a comprehensive divorce deal by his ‘very tight’ deadline at the end of 2020. … Speaking before her first face-to-face meeting with the prime minister at No. 10 Downing Street in London on Wednesday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said that if Johnson’s new government wanted the most favorable terms for divorce, with deep access to the largest, richest single market on the planet, then Britain should seek to align itself with E.U. rules and regulations. … Von der Leyen, a former German defense minister, lamented that the U.K.-E.U. marriage is over. She fondly remembered her year at the London School of Economics, where she gave her speech, and recalled, too, her pleasure in exploring a multicultural London, with frequent trips to Camden Town record stores and Soho pubs. … Von der Leyen said she hopes the two sides will be able to reach a trade deal with ‘zero tariffs, zero dumping, zero quotas.’"

 -- Australia’s fires are putting the nation’s coal-loving Prime Minister Scott Morrison to the test. Kate Shuttleworth and Joel Achenbach report: “His reputation as a coal advocate has not helped as he has struggled to project empathy for victims of the fires … The disaster has re-energized a long-running national debate over climate change and the country’s heavy investment in coal mining. Australia is one of the world’s biggest exporters of coal. Global activists have accused Morrison’s government of helping to scuttle progress on international climate talks late last year. Morrison skipped the climate meeting convened by the United Nations in September. Protesters plan to take to the streets in a string of Australian cities Friday in demonstrations organized by Uni Students for Climate Justice. Morrison has mocked environmentalists as ‘apocalyptic’ and has threatened to outlaw protests. … Morrison and his center-right coalition government have been the focus of widespread condemnation over accusations that they failed to heed warnings from experts that this would be a devastating bush-fire season. … In recent days, Morrison has said his government accepts the scientific consensus on climate change and the role of fossil fuels. He reaffirmed the government’s commitment to meeting or exceeding goals for reducing carbon emissions. But he also emphasizes the need to protect jobs.” 

-- A U.S. commission led by a bipartisan group of lawmakers urged the Trump administration to enact sanctions against Chinese officials and companies for human rights abuses. Gerry Shih reports: “The Congressional-Executive Commission on China argued for tougher and more cohesive U.S. action against Beijing in a new annual report that detailed the Chinese government's crackdown against religious minorities and labor activists, its expansion of digital surveillance and censorship, and its political influence activities around the world. … While the commission's previous reports focused on China's domestic situation, Wednesday's document contained stark new warnings about the threat of what it called China's ‘intensified use of disinformation, propaganda, economic intimidation and political influence operations.’ Congress should require U.S. universities, think tanks and nongovernmental organizations to disclose major gifts from foreign sources and expand scrutiny of Chinese government influence in American classrooms via student groups and on-campus organizations such as China's state-funded Confucius Institutes, the commission said. It warned, however, that the U.S. government's statements and policies should ‘clearly differentiate between the Chinese people and culture and the Chinese government and Communist Party’ to prevent the targeting of Chinese Americans or the Chinese diaspora.” 

-- The specter of a possible new virus is emerging from central China, raising alarms across Asia. Gerry Shih and Lena H. Sun report: “Officials in Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea, Thailand and the Philippines said in recent days that they will begin setting up quarantine zones or scanning passengers from China for signs of fever or other pneumonialike symptoms that may indicate a new disease possibly linked to a wild animal market in Wuhan. The health commission in Wuhan, a transit and business hub, says there is no clear evidence that the unidentified disease can be transmitted between humans, and no health-care workers have been infected. Cases of fever have been reported in Hong Kong and Taiwan by travelers who recently visited Wuhan, although there is no confirmation that the illnesses are linked. Since mid-December, 59 people have been diagnosed with viral pneumonia of ‘unknown cause’ — including seven who are critically ill, according to Wuhan’s health commission. The officials said an additional 163 people who have come into close contact with the infected have been placed under close observation. No deaths have been reported.”

-- China will send its chief trade negotiator to the United States next week sign a phase-one deal meant to defuse tensions. From the WSJ: “The Chinese delegation, to be led by Vice Premier Liu He, will visit Washington from Monday to Wednesday."

-- Former auto executive Carlos Ghosn proclaimed his innocence and complained of a “corrupt” and “inhumane” justice system in Japan during his first public appearance since he escaped to Lebanon. Simon Denyer, Liz Sly and Asser Khattab report: “Ghosn complained of a ‘systematic campaign by a handful of malevolent actors to destroy my reputation and impugn my character’ because of his plans to deepen the alliance between Nissan and Renault. He also denounced his detention under a ‘corrupt and hostile system that presumed my guilt from Day One.’ But Japanese Justice Minister Masako Mori said Ghosn was propagating false information about Japan's justice system and warned that his decision to run away from a criminal trial could be a crime in itself. Ghosn says that after his arrest in November 2018, he was kept in solitary confinement in a tiny cell for 130 days, while being allowed outside for only half an hour a day and only on weekdays. He says he was ‘interrogated day and night,’ sometimes for up to eight hours at a time, without a lawyer present, while lights were left on round-the-clock. The system was ‘anachronistic and inhumane,’ he said. ‘It's not very difficult to come to the conclusion that you're going to die in Japan or you have to get out.’ Experts say Japan’s legal system allows prosecutors to detain people without charge and subject them to relentless interrogation without the presence of defense counsel until they confess or incriminate themselves. … Many legal experts share Ghosn’s concerns about Japan’s justice system, while many foreign business executives say it is unthinkable that powerful, well-connected Japanese busi­ness­peo­ple would have faced similar treatment by the country’s legal system.” 

-- Russia and Turkey made a joint call for a cease-fire in Libya in an attempt to resolve a conflict that Western powers and the U.N. have struggled to end. From the Times: “Analysts say the Russians and Turks are seeking to exploit a diplomatic void left by Europe’s failure to end the fighting in Libya. A German-led effort to hold an international conference on Libya has come to nothing, and the United Nations Security Council has not called for a cease-fire. The Russian and Turkish foreign ministers issued a joint statement calling for the cease-fire on Wednesday after President Vladimir V. Putin and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met and presided over the inauguration of the TurkStream gas pipeline in Istanbul. It is not clear how much Russia and Turkey can influence events on the ground, but Mr. Putin and Mr. Erdogan have met regularly to discuss military deployments in Syria, and have declared Libya a priority.”


It was almost as if Democrats and Republicans attended a separate briefing on Iran. For the most part, lawmakers from both parties painted starkly different pictures:

Florida's Republican senator had this to say about the same briefing:

A Democratic senator from Connecticut:

This is Georgia's newly appointed Republican senator:

Not all Republicans fell in line. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a libertarian, did a round of interviews after the briefing:

The vice president shared a Situation Room pic:

The chief strategist on Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign reacted to a Frontline interview with a Border Patrol officer who followed Trump's orders to tear families apart at the border:

Jokes flowed after Meghan and Harry made their announcement:

The Chicago Tribune found the local angle:

And one of Canada’s most loved brands jumped in with a hard-to-beat offer:


“It’s going to be a very long book,” biographer Robert Caro told the Times of the unfinished final volume of his Lyndon Johnson biography.


Stephen Colbert is really glad it’s not World War III: 

Seth Meyers can’t believe some of Trump’s defenders are blaming Obama for the current crisis: 

And Trevor Noah did a dramatic reading of Trump’s “All is well!” tweet: