At the White House
'I'M NOT LOOKING FOR WAR': President Trump stepped back from the precipice of a military strike that would have escalated a major crisis with Iran. But now he's looking for other ways to curb Iran's aggression — including “major additional Sanctions” coming today and more clandestine operations.
Trump bucked the advice of some of his top national security advisers and canceled a military strike after Iran downed an American drone in the Persian Gulf last week, instead approving offensive cyberstrikes to disable Iran's computer systems used to control rocket and missile launches.
- Trump vs. his hawks: “These people want to push us into a war, and it’s so disgusting,” Trump told a confidant about advisers in his inner circle, the Wall Street Journal's Michael Bender and Gordon Lubold report. “We don’t need any more wars.”
- But military action is still on the table: “I'm not looking for war,” Trump told NBC's Chuck Todd in an interview that aired Sunday. Still, he added: “If there is, it'll be obliteration like you've never seen before.”
- In search of a deal: Trump stressed he's looking for a larger settlement with Iran over its nuclear program and is open to talks with “no preconditions.”
Here's a peek at the kind of covert options the Trump administration is contemplating — including in cyberspace — to avoid escalating tensions “into a full-out conventional war”:
- “Officials did not provide specifics about the secret operations under consideration by the White House. But they could include a wide range of activities such as additional cyber attacks, clandestine operations aimed at disabling boats used by Iranians to conduct shipping attacks, and covert operations inside Iran aimed at fomenting more unrest,” the New York Times's Julian Barnes, Eric Schmitt and Thomas Gibbons-Neff report. “The United States might also look for ways to divide or undermine the effectiveness of Iranian proxy groups, officials said.”
- The cyberattacks from last Thursday are a model: “U.S. Cyber Command launched a retaliatory digital strike against an Iranian spy group that supported last week’s limpet mine attacks on commercial ships, according to two former intelligence officials,” Yahoo News's Jenna McLaughlin, Zach Dorfman and Sean D. Naylor first reported on Friday.
- No loss of life: “Though crippling to Iran’s military command and control systems, the operation did not involve a loss of life or civilian casualties — a contrast to conventional strikes, which the president said he called back Thursday because they would not be 'proportionate,'" my colleague Ellen Nakashima confirmed.
More sanctions: As we wait for the Trump administration to unveil more measures today to tighten the financial noose around Tehran, remember that Iran has already been subjected to what Trump calls “massive” sanctions that crippled its economy after Trump pulled out of the Obama-era nuclear deal last year.
Another attempt to avoid a conflict: " . . . Mr. Trump’s decision to raise economic pressure further suggests he believes he can use sanctions to bring Iran to the negotiating table on U.S. terms without triggering a conflict,” the Wall Street Journal's Michael Gordon and Laurence Norman report.
Chokehold tightening: “The economy in Iran is reeling already from the sanctions that have been put in place before as part of the maximum pressure campaign,” Rep. Michael R. Turner (R-Ohio) told Fox News's Maria Bartiromo on Sunday. "The International Monetary Fund indicates that Iran's economy this year is expected to contract by six percent," per Fox.
Turner added that he expects the new sanctions “to go right to the heart of really the engine of Iran's economy” by targeting Iranian oil exports.
.@VP Mike Pence says he expects the president to announce additional sanctions on Iran tomorrow but couldn't say whether the US has conducted cyber operations for retaliation because “we never comment on covert operations.” pic.twitter.com/upbcAfOJm3— Face The Nation (@FaceTheNation) June 23, 2019
But Trump's decision to hold off on striking Iran was met with mixed reviews. Some hawks criticized Trump's lack of teeth:
- Itching for more: “I realize and appreciate the difficult decisions President [Trump] has to face regarding Iran’s multiple provocations,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) tweeted. “However, when it comes to the Middle East, people rightly talk about the 'Cost of Action' but they seldom mention the 'Cost of Inaction.'"
- 'Deterrence failure': House Armed Services Committee member Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) told the Times that calling off a limited retaliatory strike risks “a massive deterrence failure in the region, and it will only embolden Iran.”
- More: “Simply saying we are going to do something and then not doing it, to me, then you’re in no man’s land,” Gallagher said.
- Michael Vickers, most recently an undersecretary of defense for intelligence under President Obama, made a similar argument in an op-ed for The Post: “The Trump administration should respond to these recent attacks with strikes of its own on Iranian and Houthi air-defense assets, offensive missile systems and Revolutionary Guard Corps bases. A measured but firm response is what is required . . . Offramps need to built into the campaign plan so that limited military strike operations do not lead to a wider war. Indeed, by reinforcing deterrence, a short-duration U.S. military operation may well help to prevent a wider conflict with Iran."
But some experts give Trump points for restraint:
- “White House pressing for covert options to counter Iran is smart & what I’ve been arguing for. Stay short of war, don’t embarrass Iran publicly in a way that forces a response, but send a message that there are costs for Iranian action,” tweeted Ilan Goldenberg, a former State Department and Pentagon official now at the Center for New American Security think tank.
Regardless, Trump's call on Saturday afternoon on the way to Camp David to “start all over” with nuclear talks may ring hollow with Tehran — and some experts are blasting the administration's decision to pull out of Obama's nuclear deal in the first place:
At odds: “U.S. officials say they want a deal that has restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program that don’t expire; bans all types of uranium enrichment; and reins in Tehran’s regional ambitions and ballistic missile program,” my colleagues John Hudson and Anne Gearan reported over the weekend. “But such an outcome appears highly unlikely given Iran’s view of the United States as an aggressor bent on the country’s economic collapse, to be followed by regime change.”
Trump's view: “Trump, addressing reporters before leaving for Camp David on Saturday, said he wants to do great things for the longtime adversary. 'Iran wants to become a wealthy nation again. Let’s make Iran great again,' Trump said. But he has shown no interest in relieving the sanctions — and even promised more, despite Iran insisting they must be lifted before any dialogue begins.”
Talks a long shot: Philip Gordon, a former Obama administration official who helped negotiate the Iran nuclear deal, told NPR's Ari Shapiro that it's unlikely that Iran would come back to the negotiating table after the U.S. pulled out of a deal that “most countries in the world” supported. “You know, Iran has politics, too,” he said.
Escalation may be inevitable: “I am genuinely worried about escalation because when you think through the alternatives to escalation, it's hard to see how they play out,” Gordon said. “And that's why this was always so concerning in the first place because it seemed like the Trump administration didn't have a realistic plan for what they were going to bring about. So one option would have been new talks, a new deal. That's what the administration said they wanted to produce through this pressure.”
'WE ARE RUNNING OUT OF TIME': Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said he hopes his fellow lawmakers can reach a decision with former special counsel Robert Mueller this week on whether he will testify before Congress.
- More from the House Intelligence Committee chairman: “We have been in private discussions with the special counsel's office,” he told CNN's “State of the Union." “It is not clear that he will refuse to come in voluntarily; we are negotiating what the conditions of that appearance might be. But yes, we are running out of time.”
- Remember: Mueller said that his 448-page report was “my testimony” and that any statements would just reiterate the report’s findings.
- Clock's ticking: The House is scheduled to leave town for a more than six-week recess starting July 29. There's another break for the July Fourth holiday. (And as we wrote last week, some Democrats see impeachment as make or break by September.)
- As for other witnesses: Politico's Andrew Desiderio reports that despite the House Judiciary Committee striking a deal with Don McGahn's former top aide Annie Donaldson, the White House is expected to "assert its claims that former aides have 'absolute immunity' from testifying to Congress about their service in the White House."
- Meanwhile … others are talking: Former top Mueller prosecutor Andrew Weissmann, who played a major role in the prosecution of Paul Manafort, has a book deal. According to the Times, which broke the news, Weissmann is the first Mueller prosecutor to sign a book deal that will cover some of his work for the extremely tight lipped team.
Outside the Beltway
'A TWO WEEK REPRIEVE': Trump may have decided to postpone the mass arrest and deportation operation of immigrant families that were originally scheduled to begin yesterday, but immigrant rights groups in major cities are still mobilizing to "teach immigrants what to do if an agent knocks on their door," my Post colleagues report.
“We’re ready. We’re going to be vigilant,” Richard Morales, director of the immigrant rights campaign for Faith in Action, a national faith-based network in more than 20 states, told The Post. “Whether it happens today or it happens in two weeks, our congregation, our clergy, they’re ready to respond.”
The reason for the delay? House Speaker Nancy Pelosi urged Trump on Friday to back off of the raids. Trump announced tweeted Saturday that he would hold off "at the request of the Democrats" to see if Congress can "get together and work out a solution to the Asylum and Loophole problems at the Southern Border."
$$$: Congress is also working on passing a border aid package of $4.5 billion to provide humanitarian assistance for the surge of families and unaccompanied minors. Vice President Mike Pence blamed the conditions of some detention centers for migrant children on Congress:
"We're doing a lot with what the Congress has given us, but again Congress refused to increase the bed space in the last appropriations bill," Pence told Face The Nation's Margaret Brennan on Sunday morning. "They continue to delay efforts on additional humanitarian support."
What the public uproar's all about: Various reports over the weekend detailed the grim conditions unfolding on the border in the detention centers where migrant children are being held. The accounts were mostly provided by lawyers, whose access is guaranteed by the Flores settlement that requires that the government provide “safe and sanitary” conditions for minors:
In Clint, Texas: "The conditions within which they are held could be compared to torture facilities," a physician, Dolly Lucio Sevier, wrote in a medical declaration obtained exclusively by ABC News.
Per the New Yorker's Isaac Chotiner: "To discuss what the attorneys saw and heard, I spoke by phone with one of them, Warren Binford, a law professor at Willamette University and the director of its clinical-law program. She told me that, although Flores is an active court case, some of the lawyers were so disturbed by what they saw that they decided to talk to the media...
Per Binford: “And then we started to pull the children who had been there the longest to find out just how long children are being kept there. Children described to us that they’ve been there for three weeks or longer. And so, immediately from that population that we were trying to triage, they were filthy dirty, there was mucus on their shirts, the shirts were dirty. We saw breast milk on the shirts. There was food on the shirts, and the pants as well. They told us that they were hungry. They told us that some of them had not showered or had not showered until the day or two days before we arrived. Many of them described that they only brushed their teeth once. This facility knew last week that we were coming. The government knew three weeks ago that we were coming.”
More: "Children as young as 7 and 8, many of them wearing clothes caked with snot and tears, are caring for infants they’ve just met, the lawyers said. Toddlers without diapers are relieving themselves in their pants. Teenage mothers are wearing clothes stained with breast milk," the New York Times's Caitlin Dickerson reported. "Most of the young detainees have not been able to shower or wash their clothes since they arrived at the facility, those who visited said. They have no access to toothbrushes, toothpaste or soap."
In McAllen, Texas: "It was so bad that the mothers would save any bottled water they could get and use that to mix the baby formula,” attorney Toby Gialluca told The Texas Tribune on Saturday.
A Trump official tried to argue that detained children don’t need soap, toothbrushes, or beds to be ‘safe and sanitary’ while in Border Patrol custody pic.twitter.com/sRFPZsDbwy— NowThis (@nowthisnews) June 21, 2019
BACK IN SOUTH BEND: South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg faced “near chaos” in a town hall on Sunday as he continues to try to address tensions over the killing of a black resident by a white officer, the Los Angeles Times’ Matt Pearce reports. Buttigieg’s response -- and struggles to balance his presidential campaign schedule -- have been the subject of numerous national reports that continue to dig at what our colleague Wesley Lowery so aptly described as "an Achilles' heel of his candidacy: his frosty relationship with South Bend’s black residents.”
- From Sunday’s town hall: “The largely black audience of hundreds was having little of it, frequently interrupting and shouting over the mayor. ‘We don’t trust you!’ a woman hollered at Buttigieg,” Pearce writes of the mayor’s efforts to assuage the crowd. "‘You might as well just withdraw your name from the presidential race,’ said a woman in the raucous crowd. ‘His presidential campaign is over . . . I believe that today ended his campaign.’”
- A 2012 decision that continues to haunt Buttigieg: The shooting has also brought back raw feelings about Buttigieg’s decision three months into his mayorship to ask for the resignation of the city’s first black police chief Darryl Boykins. Boykins allegedly improperly taped white officers making racist remarks and was under FBI investigation for his actions.
- The big picture: Support among black voters was already a major question facing Buttigieg’s presidential campaign, despite his surprising showing in the polls and growing fundraising prowess. It's a demographic that is vital to winning the primary or succeeding in a state like South Carolina.
BERNIE TAKES ON STUDENT DEBT: “Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) will propose on Monday eliminating all $1.6 trillion of student debt held in the United States, a significant escalation of the policy fight in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary two days before the candidates’ first debate in Miami,” our colleague Jeff Stein reports. “Sanders is proposing the federal government pay to wipe clean the student debt held by 45 million Americans — including all private and graduate school debt — as part of a package that also would make public universities, community colleges and trade schools tuition-free.”
- How the proposal compares to other 2020 candidates: “[Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.] has proposed forgiving up to $50,000 in student debt for those earning under $100,000, or about 42 million people,” Jeff writes. “Under [former Housing and Urban Development Secretary] Julián Castro’s plan, borrowers would not have to repay their loans until their income rose above 250 percent of the federal poverty line — about $64,000 for a family of four — after which it would be capped.”
- How to pay for it: “Sanders is proposing to pay for the legislation with a new tax on financial transactions, including a 0.5 percent tax on stock transactions and a 0.1 percent tax on bonds,” Jeff writes. “Such a levy would curb Wall Street speculation while reducing income inequality, according to a report by the Century Foundation, a left-leaning think tank, though conservatives warn it would stunt economic growth and investment.”
NEW: @uscensusbureau research finds adding a #CitizenshipQuestion will likely reduce #2020Census responses at a rate higher than previously estimated for U.S. households with noncitizens. "Best estimate" by researchers is now at least 8% -- up from 5.8%👇https://t.co/TDVEEqDw0k— Hansi Lo Wang (@hansilowang) June 23, 2019
In the Media
IN OTHER NEWS:
- 🚨: Trump shrugs off Khashoggi killing by ally Saudi Arabia. By the New York Times’s Michael Shear.
- More climate research suppression: Agriculture Department buries studies showing dangers of climate change. By Politico’s Helena Bottemiller Evich.
- It's debate week: Time’s Up on presidential debates designed for the last century. By Eva Longoria, Ana Navarro and Hilary Rosen for The Washington Post.
- Paging VP Pence: Trump-Haley in 2020. By Andrew Stein for The Wall Street Journal.
- CBS evening news with Norah O’Donnell announces launch date: 'I Can't Wait to Get Started!' By People's Emily Strohm.
- Going into the Bahrain conference like...: Trump Peace Plan Wins Praise From Israelis, Rejection From Palestinians. By the WSJ’s Felicia Schwartz.