At the White House
CLASH OVER IRAN: President Trump is not thrilled with national security adviser John Bolton's aggressive, warlike planning for a potential military confrontation with Iran.
My colleagues John Hudson, Josh Dawsey, Shane Harris and Anne Gearan report that Trump is “increasingly frustrated with some of his top advisers” over how to respond to recent intelligence reports showing credible threats against U.S. personnel and interests in the Middle East.
Trump is known to revel in being the decision-maker among opposing factions pushing different agendas. But in recent weeks, it seems that the hawkish Bolton is putting himself in a precarious position with a president who campaigned on disentangling the U.S. from expensive, drawn-out overseas conflicts.
“Bolton, who advocated regime change in Iran before joining Trump’s White House last year, is 'just in a different place' than Trump, although Trump has been a fierce critic of Iran since long before he hired Bolton. Trump 'wants to talk to the Iranians; he wants a deal,' and is open to negotiation with the current Iranian government, the official said,” per Hudson, Harris, Dawsey and Gearan.
“'He is not comfortable with all this ‘regime change’ talk,' which to his ears echoes the discussion of regime change in Iraq before the 2003 U.S. invasion, the official said.”
“They are getting way out ahead of themselves, and Trump is annoyed,” a senior administration official with knowledge of conversations Trump had regarding Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. “There was a scramble for Bolton and Pompeo and others to get on the same page.”
So far: the administration has dispatched an “aircraft carrier, a Patriot missile battery and a squadron of B-52 bombers” Persian Gulf, and updated a military plan “that envisions sending as many as 120,000 troops to the Middle East,” and ordered a partial evacuation of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.
The latest: The New York Times Julian Barnes, Eric Schmitt, Nick Fandos and Ed Wong report that the intelligence at the center of interagency debate “came from photographs of missiles on small boats in the Persian Gulf that were put on board by Iranian paramilitary forces, three American officials said. Overhead imagery showed fully assembled missiles, stoking fears that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps would fire them at United States naval ships. Additional pieces of intelligence picked up threats against commercial shipping and potential attacks by Arab militias with Iran ties on American troops in Iraq.”
Not just Iran: Bolton's interventionist stance on American power also just earned Trump's ire after the failure of a U.S. backed effort to oust Venezuela President Nicolás Maduro.
- My colleagues reported last week that Trump complained “he was misled” and said “Bolton wants to get him 'into a war' — a comment that he has made in jest in the past but that now betrays his more serious concerns.”
WHAT YOU SEE IS WHAT YOU GET: But those in conservative national security policy circles who know Bolton say that Trump was well aware of Bolton's views — and tendency to advocate for regime change — when he brought him on as national security adviser. Just before joining the administration, Bolton had penned an op-ed calling for a pre-emptive strike against North Korea. And remember: Bolton was an advocate for ousting Saddam Hussein dating back to the Bill Clinton administration, and as George W. Bush’s undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, played a key role in the buildup to the Iraq invasion.
- “Bolton has a long track record of being an offensive realist, and the president knew that when he hired him,” the Heritage Foundation's James Carafano told Power Up. “I don't think that's something that the president was not prepared for. And asking for all options on the table and getting all opinions? I think that's just being prudent.”
- Trump seeks out different views: “I always remind people: two of the president's favorite senators are Lindsey Graham and Rand Paul. They are polar opposites,” Carafano added.
- Bolton's brand has benefits: “I think the president knew who he was hiring and he loves the fact that he’s John Bolton,” Mark Dubowitz, the head of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, told Power Up. “He's somebody straight from central casting and every time the Iranians and North Koreans talk about the fact that they refuse to speak to Bolton” allows Trump “additional diplomatic space.”
- “He's the necessary bad cop,” Dubowitz added.
Yet some who previously worked with Bolton describe a track record of skirting interagency processes to push his opinions and ideology — and a deep skepticism of diplomacy.
- “In the Bush administration, he did not play in the established process,” Michael Green, a former NSA staffer in the Bush administration who is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Power Up. “He did things on his own, outside of the process.”
- “He's definitely not the Brent Scowcroft of the Trump White House, trying to get the president all of the fair and inclusive views” during decision-making processes, Green added.
Trump himself denied any “infighting whatsoever” via Twitter:
- “Different opinions are expressed and I make a decisive and final decision — it is a very simple process. All sides, views, and policies are covered. I’m sure that Iran will want to talk soon,” he tweeted midday on Wednesday.
- National Security Council spokesperson Garrett Marquis said The Post's reporting on Trump's annoyance with Bolton over Iran “doesn't accurately reflect reality.”
DEJA VU?: Bolton's reputation has, in part, caused distrust among European allies, who remain skeptical of Washington's claims of credible threats from Iran as American officials such as Pompeo have sought to recruit their support.
- “The anti-Iran push has proved difficult even among the allies, which remember a similar campaign against Iraq that was led in part by Mr. Bolton and was fueled by false claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction,” the New York Times's Helena Cooper and Ed Wong reported earlier this week. " . . . Intelligence and military officials in Europe as well as in the United States said that over the past year, most aggressive moves have originated not in Tehran, but in Washington,” they write.
- “Privately, several European officials described Mr. Bolton and Mr. Pompeo as pushing an unsuspecting Mr. Trump through a series of steps that could put the United States on a course to war before the president realizes it,” Cooper and Wong report.
- Even Iran is making historical comparisons: “In interviews in April, I predicted ‘accidents’ — not because I’m a genius — but because #B_Team is so brazenly following @AmbJohnBolton’s script,” Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted on Tuesday. “After all, half of B-Team were co-conspirators in disastrous Iraq War.”
The drumbeat toward a confrontation has sparked pushback from Republicans and other Trump allies.
- “It’s close to inconceivable that the president, the administration would consider a war with Iran,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) told Politico's Heather Caygle, Burgess Everett and Nahal Toosi. “The president made it clear when he ran for president that one of the worst foreign policy mistakes in American history was the decision to go to war with Iraq. And that we would repeat that [is] unthinkable and something I can’t imagine the president or his senior staff would consider.”
- Even pro-Trump media circles are hammering Bolton's interventionist agenda: “More than anything in the world, [Bolton] would love to have a war with Iran,” Tucker Carlson said during a segment on Tuesday. “It would be like Christmas, Thanksgiving, and his birthday wrapped into one.”
The Onion's take:
Outside the Beltway
ALABAMA GOV. QUICKLY SIGNS ANTIABORTION LAW: Alabama Republican Gov. Kay Ivey's move to sign the nation’s strictest abortion measure into law -- a bill that allows for no exceptions in case of rape or incest -- almost certainly guarantees the court fight its authors desire. But it will have impacts on 2020.
- Democrats are fired up: “Democratic strategists argue that the Alabama law will help put the threat to Roe v. Wade more squarely on the agenda in the 2020 election, as a possible rallying point for women and highly educated voters,” our colleagues Michael Scherer and Felicia Sonmez report. “Suburban women had been a particular target for Democrats even before the abortion measures surfaced.”
- A tricky spot for Republicans: “Until recently, Republicans have been on offense on the issue of abortion, deploying a similar playbook to the one Democrats are now using by calling their opponents extreme due to a recent law passed in New York that expanded access to abortions late in a pregnancy,” Michael and Felicia write. But Wednesday was a different story: “Republicans leaders, by contrast, spent much of the day avoiding questions about the Alabama law, wary of being dragged into a debate over whether to refuse rape and incest victims the option of abortion following forced pregnancies.”
- Alabama's senior senator didn't defend his home state's legislature: “I have supported consistently the Hyde Amendment, which is the federal law,” said Sen. Richard C. Shelby, when asked about his state’s bill,” Michael and Felicia write. “The Hyde Amendment bars the use of federal funds for abortion except in cases of rape and incest — the circumstances omitted from the legislation — or to save the life of the mother.”
- But the rash of antiabortion legislation will likely continue: “The [Alabama] bill was the latest in a wave of efforts by antiabortion activists to create legislation that would give the Supreme Court, which has grown more conservative under Trump, the opportunity to once again allow states to outlaw abortions in most cases. The governors of Ohio and Georgia also have recently signed bills that outlaw abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected — at about six weeks following conception, before many know they are pregnant.”
MEANWHILE IN GEORGIA: "[I]n the week since Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed into law one of the nation’s most restrictive abortion laws, none of the major film or television studios have commented on the issue or altered production plans,” the Associated Press's Lindsey Bahn and Sanya Mansoor report.
"[I]rresistible tax incentives have turned the state into a filming powerhouse dubbed 'Hollywood of the South.' Productions as big as Marvel Studios’ superhero blockbusters and shows like 'Stranger Things' and 'The Walking Dead' call the state home base, and some have not shied away from throwing their weight around when values clash with proposed laws.”
“The muted reaction is in striking contrast to what happened just three years ago when Netflix and Disney threatened to pull productions if a law allowing faith-based refusal of services to LGBTQ persons was passed. Other companies also publicly denounced that proposed law, including AMC, Time Warner, Lionsgate, Sony, NBC Universal and CBS.”
On The Hill
DEMS STAY BEHIND PELOSI ON IMPEACHMENT: “Trump, who is refusing to cooperate with more than 20 congressional investigations, instructed current and former aides Wednesday to ignore a House committee’s request for documents in the latest act of defiance that has prompted Democrats to declare that the nation is facing a constitutional crisis,” our colleagues Rachael Bade and Mike DeBonis report. But even behind closed doors, Democrats remain reluctant to move toward impeachment.
No challenge: “House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told Democrats in a closed-door caucus meeting Wednesday morning to stick to their policy agenda ahead of the 2020 election rather than initiate impeachment proceedings,” Rachael and Mike write. “And not a single lawmaker challenged her, according to a person in the room who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private meeting.”
WHITE HOUSE SAYS NO DO-OVERS: Meanwhile, the White House is telling House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) that it is refusing the committee's broad demands for records and testimony from more than 81 different people and organizations. The reason: The White House says Congress has no right to a “do-over” of the special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation.
“Congressional investigations are intended to obtain information to aid in evaluating potential legislation, not to harass political opponents or to pursue an unauthorized 'do-over' of exhaustive law enforcement investigations conducted by the Department of Justice,” White House counsel Pat Cipollone wrote in his 12-page letter to Nadler refusing the panel’s request.
- Nadler responds: “No President, no person in the United States is above the law. This is preposterous,” Nadler told CNN’s Jeremy Herd, Pamela Brown and Manu Raju. “They are saying we should end the investigation. We are not ending the investigation. If we were to agree to that, then no president would ever be subject to any kind of investigation for misconduct of any type.”
Meanwhile, on Trump's taxes...: A court fight looks increasingly likely as Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin testified to Senate lawmakers that he probably won’t comply with House Democrats’ subpoena for Trump’s tax returns. “I think it’s better that we have the court’s interpretation if there is a difference than establishing precedent that is weaponizing the IRS,” Mnuchin said. A response to the subpoena is due Friday.
TODAY: KUSHNER'S IMMIGRATION PLAN: The president plans to unveil a sweeping proposal to fundamentally change America’s immigration system today during a planned event in the Rose Garden. “Trump is scheduled to use a … speech on Thursday to throw his support behind a plan developed with his son-in-law and White House adviser, Jared Kushner, to move U.S. immigration toward a ‘merit-based system’ that prioritizes high-skilled workers over those with family already in the country,” our colleagues David Nakamura and Ashley Parker report.
Despite skepticism on the Hill, Trump is owning the plan: “This is his proposal,” said a senior administration official who, like others in this report, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations. “He’s been intimately involved in crafting it.”
How it would work: “The new White House plan would distribute more than half of the green cards to immigrants under a point system in which applicants are ranked on such criteria as professional skills, education levels, age and English ability, White House aides said,” David and Ashley write.
Addressing the border crisis: “Aides said the plan would call for modernizing legal ports of entry to help prevent the flow of illicit drugs and human trafficking, while also proposing changes to make U.S. asylum laws stricter — something Democrats have resisted.”
Nothing for DACA: “White House officials said the plan does not address the fate of up to 2 million younger immigrants, known as ‘dreamers,’ who have lived in the country illegally since they were brought in as children.”
But even the White House thinks the plan is dead: “Inside the White House, there is little expectation from Trump’s aides that the plan will move forward, one official said,” David and Ashley write. “The official described an ideological split between Kushner, whose immigration views are more moderate, and another senior White House adviser, Stephen Miller, a hard-liner who is privately opposed to much of the plan.”
The takeaway: As David and Ashley point out, “Congress has not passed a major immigration bill in three decades, and efforts at comprehensive reform failed under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, both of whom emphasized the need to balance efforts to beef up enforcement with the need to expand legal pathways into the United States.” Thursday’s proposal is far from either of those plans and without House Democrats the chance of Trump’s success is virtually nonexistent.
MEANWHILE 🚨: A fourth migrant child apprehended at the border has died since December.
- My colleagues Maria Sacchetti and Robert Moore report that a "2½-year-old Guatemalan boy apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border died Tuesday night in El Paso after several weeks in the hospital, according to the Guatemalan Consulate and another person with direct knowledge of the case.”
In the Media
IN OTHER NEWS:
- Stacey Abrams: Why I Am Determined to End Voter Suppression. By Stacey Abrams for The New York Times.
- About that bailout: Perdue says farmer aid package still a work in progress. By The Associated Press’s Kevin Freking.
- Paging POTUS: PM Abe says Japan wants to develop ties with Iran. By Reuters’s Kiyoshi Takenaka
- Overlooked: White House declines to back Christchurch call to stamp out online extremism amid free speech concerns. By The Post's Tony Romm and Drew Harwell.
- The above on the same day that the White House did this: White House escalates war against Facebook, Google and Twitter with a campaign asking users to share stories of censorship. By The Post's Tony Romm.
- More on Iran: U.A.E. Won't Be `Baited Into Crisis' With Iran as Tensions Mount. By Bloomberg's Zainab Fattah.
- Want a bridge? Trump blurs line between governing, campaign. By The AP's Jill Colvin.
- Swamp alert: Kasich adviser will lobby against potential Russia sanctions. By Politico's Theo Meyer.