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The Daily 202

A lunchtime newsletter featuring political analysis on the stories driving the day.

U.S. kills al Qaeda boss Zawahiri. Now what?

The Daily 202

A lunchtime newsletter featuring political analysis on the stories driving the day.

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Welcome to The Daily 202! Tell your friends to sign up here. The Associated Press reminds me that on this day in 2014, Kent Brantly, a physician and the first Ebola patient to be brought to the United States from Africa, was safely escorted into a specialized isolation unit at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, where he recovered from the disease. (cc: Dr. Jay)

The big idea

Four questions about the strike that killed bin Laden’s heir

Not quite one year after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, President Biden announced last night that a U.S. drone strike in Kabul had killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, a central figure in the 9/11 attacks plotting and one of the most wanted extremists in the world.

Justice has been delivered, and this terrorist leader is no more,” the president said from the balcony outside the Blue Room on the White House’s first floor. “The United States continues to demonstrate our resolve and our capacity to defend the American people.”

The raid, which Biden said was carried out Saturday, amounted to a significant victory in the so-called war on terrorism America declared after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon 21 years ago this fall.

The Daily 202 has four questions related to the strike and the aftermath.

1. What does this mean for U.S. ‘over the horizon’ capabilities in Afghanistan?

The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan deprived America of some critical intelligence and Special Forces assets on the ground — both sources of information leading to airstrikes. “Over the horizon” refers to the ability to deter or destroy would-be terrorist plotters with fewer, if any, of those capabilities — and from suddenly far longer range.

“We will maintain the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan and other countries. We just don’t need to fight a ground war to do it,” Biden promised Aug. 31. “We have what’s called over-the-horizon capabilities, which means we can strike terrorists and targets without American boots on the ground — or very few, if needed.”

Killing Zawahiri proves there’s considerable merit to the argument. But it once again raises the uncomfortable question: What’s happening in Afghanistan that the United States is missing?

2. Just what was the Taliban role, if any?

A few weeks after the U.S. withdrawal, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark A. Milley, told Congress the Taliban were sheltering al-Qaeda and warned the group could reconstitute a threat to the United States within six months to three years.

In The Washington Post, we noted Monday night that “[the] 2019 agreement leading to the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan included a Taliban pledge not to allow terrorist groups with international aims to operate within their territory, and to break all relations with those groups. While the Islamic State has been growing within Afghanistan and has claimed frequent attacks against Taliban and civilian targets, al-Qaeda appears to retain a strong relationship with the Taliban government.

On the other hand, this is the first known U.S. counter-terrorism strike inside Afghanistan since the withdrawal. Biden said U.S. intelligence had located Zawahiri earlier this year in downtown Kabul where he had relocated “to reunite with members of his immediate family.”

At the Associated Press, Matthew Lee, Nomaan Merchant, Mike Balsamo and James LaPorta reported: “The house Al-Zawahri was in when he was killed was owned by a top aide to senior Taliban leader Sirajuddin Haqqani, according to a senior intelligence official.”

Pretty much the definition of “harboring.”

So are the Taliban reliable al-Qaeda allies? Or is it possible they played a role — intentional or not — in revealing his location?

3. What’s the domestic political effect for Biden?

One of the first Congressional statements about Zawahiri that landed in The Daily 202’s inbox came from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who has never hesitated to fire rhetorical broadsides at Biden. His reaction had no words of praise for the president, but he cheered the operation unreservedly.

If history is any guide, Biden will get next to zero political benefit from the raid. Why such certainty?

At the time of the May 2011 U.S. raid that killed him, Osama bin Laden cut a far more recognizable figure to the U.S. public, and 9/11 was fresher in American minds.

President Barack Obama’s six-point polling bounce from ordering the mission that killed the al-Qaeda mastermind subsided within weeks.

4. Just how relevant (dangerous) was Zawahiri?

Here’s how The Post team on the story put it.

Zawahiri “played an important role in turning al-Qaeda into a more lethal and ambitious terror organization, according to many of the investigators who hunted its leadership for decades. By merging his Egyptian-centric organization with bin Laden’s, the group became a far more dangerous and global terror group, analysts said. Zawahiri was indicted for the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, attacks that first highlighted the growing threat from al-Qaeda.”

After bin Laden’s death, Zawahiri became the figurehead leader of al-Qaeda, but he was a hunted man in charge of a decimated organization. Lacking bin Laden’s loyal following, Zawahiri tried to command far-flung terror groups that often ignored his decrees and rejected his advice. In particular, he was overshadowed by the rise of the Islamic State and its bloody dominion for several years over parts of Syria and Iraq.”

As the old line goes, it seems he was (mostly) forgotten, but not gone. Until Saturday.

What’s happening now

Pelosi lands in Taiwan, defying Chinese warnings of forceful response

“House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) arrived in Taiwan late Tuesday, defying Chinese warnings against visiting the self-ruled island that Beijing claims as its territory and setting the stage for a sharp escalation in tensions between China and the United States,” Lily Kuo reports.

“Pelosi, in a statement issued moments after her arrival, said, ‘Our congressional delegation’s visit to Taiwan honors America’s unwavering commitment to supporting Taiwan’s vibrant Democracy.’”

More: Gingrich, last House speaker to visit Taiwan, downplays China threats

Job openings eased in June, reflecting early signs of slowdown

“The hot labor market could be starting to soften, as U.S. employers posted 10.7 million job openings in June, tapering off a bit from previous months,” Lauren Kaori Gurley reports.

“The number of people who quit their jobs was still elevated at 2.8 percent, according to data released Tuesday by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.”

Democrats race to ready Inflation Reduction Act for vote this week

“Six days after striking a legislative deal to the shock of Washington, Democratic leaders still have much to do ahead of a final vote: They need to shore up support among their own ranks, steel themselves for new Republican attacks and prepare for the possibility that a coronavirus outbreak could rattle even the best laid plans around the Inflation Reduction Act,” Tony Romm reports.

House panel subpoenas gun manufacturer of weapon used in Highland Park

“The House Oversight Committee has subpoenaed the firearms manufacturer Smith & Wesson for key documents related to the company’s sale and marketing of AR-15-style firearms after it failed to produce sufficient documents and information requested by the committee and the company’s CEO refused to appear before Congress last month,” Jacqueline Alemany reports.

The war in Ukraine

Promising signs for grain shipments from Odessa

“Monday’s grain shipment was ‘the first positive signal that there is a chance to stop the spread of the food crisis in the world,’ Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his nightly address. That cargo vessel, carrying more than 26,000 metric tons of corn, is en route to Lebanon under a deal brokered by the United Nations,” Jennifer Hassan, Sean Fanning, Kendra Nichols, Dalton Bennett and Robyn Dixon report.

Lunchtime reads from The Post

Memo shows Wisconsin GOP lawyer privately opposed decertifying Biden’s 2020 win

“It was an extraordinary public statement from a former state Supreme Court justice hired by Republican lawmakers to probe the 2020 election: Wisconsin should take a ‘hard look’ at canceling Joe Biden’s victory and revoking the state’s 10 electoral college votes,” Patrick Marley reports.

“The comment in March drew applause from a packed hearing room in the state Capitol and praise from former president Donald Trump, whose allies have called for throwing out the results in Wisconsin and other battleground states even though constitutional scholars have scoffed at the notion as absurd.”

But a newly unearthed memo shows that the former justice, Michael Gableman, soon afterward offered a far different analysis in private.”

Senators unveil bipartisan abortion access bill; measure unlikely to pass

“The compromise legislation unveiled Monday ensures federal abortion rights up to viability, and allows post-viability abortion when the health of the mother is in jeopardy. The statute does not specify what week is viability or what constitutes when a mother’s health is in danger. Both issues are to be defined by the pregnant person’s medical practitioner,” Leigh Ann Caldwell reports.

… and beyond

Cassidy Hutchinson kept working for Trump for nine weeks after he left the White House, government records show

“Hutchinson served as a ‘coordinator’ for Trump's official, taxpayer-funded post-presidential office from about January 20, 2021, to April 1, 2021, earning an annualized salary of $90,000, the General Services Administration documents state,” Insider's Dave Levinthal and C. Ryan Barber report.

“The documents establish that Hutchinson continued to earn a government paycheck for work in support of Trump for weeks after she witnessed his actions — and lack of action — on January 6, 2021, even as other colleagues soon thereafter resigned.”

A right-wing think tank claimed to be a church. Now, members of Congress want to investigate.

“Forty members of Congress on Monday asked the IRS and the Treasury to investigate what the lawmakers termed an ‘alarming pattern’ of right-wing advocacy groups registering with the tax agency as churches, a move that allows the organizations to shield themselves from some financial reporting requirements and makes it easier to avoid audits,” ProPublica's Andrea Suozzo reports.

“Reps. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., and Suzan DelBene, D-Wash., raised transparency concerns in a letter to the heads of both agencies following a ProPublica story about the Family Research Council, a right-wing Christian think tank based in Washington, D.C., getting reclassified as a church.”

The Biden agenda

How Joe Biden and his team decided to kill the world’s most wanted terrorist

President Biden on Aug. 1 announced that the United States killed Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda, in a drone strike on July 30. (Video: The Washington Post)

“The US drone strike that killed Zawahiri on his balcony in downtown Kabul was the product of months of highly secret planning by Biden and a tight circle of his senior advisers. Among the preparations was a small-scale model of Zawahiri's safe house, constructed by intelligence officials and placed inside the White House Situation Room for Biden to examine as he debated his options,” CNN's Kevin Liptak reports.

White House names FEMA’s Fenton as monkeypox coordinator

“The White House named Robert J. Fenton Jr. as coordinator of the nation’s monkeypox response amid a surging epidemic that has prompted three states to declare health emergencies,” Dan Diamond reports.

“Fenton is a regional administrator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, where he has worked since 1996. He previously served as acting administrator of the agency. Fenton helped oversee the Biden administration’s efforts to set up coronavirus vaccination sites.”

White House warns China not to overreact to expected Pelosi visit to Taiwan

“China appears to be positioning itself to take further steps in the coming days and perhaps over longer time horizons,” White House spokesman John Kirby said, Yasmeen Abutaleb, Ellen Nakashima and Lily Kuo report. He added: “Nothing about this potential visit — which, oh, by the way, has precedent — would change the status quo.”

Ukraine's grain exports, visualized

“The first ship carrying grain departed a Ukrainian port early Monday under a United Nations-brokered deal to ease a global food crisis sparked by the Russian invasion of Ukraine,” Dalton Bennett and Kareem Fahim report.

Hot on the left

Democrats’ side deal with Manchin would speed up projects, West Virginia gas

“A side agreement reached between Democratic leadership and Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) as part of their broader deal on an economic package would overhaul the nation’s process for approving new energy projects, including by expediting a gas pipeline proposed for West Virginia, according to a one-page summary obtained by The Washington Post,” Jeff Stein and Tony Romm report.

“To win Manchin’s support for the climate, energy and health-care package that was etched last week, Democratic leaders agreed to attempt to advance separate legislation on expediting energy projects.”

Hot on the right

A new constitutional convention?

“You take this grenade and you pull the pin, you've got a live piece of ammo in your hands,” former Republican senator Rick Santorum, a two-time GOP presidential candidate explained in audio of his remarks obtained by the left-leaning watchdog group the Center for Media and Democracy, Insider's Grace Panetta and Brent D. Griffiths report.

  • “34 states — if every Republican legislator votes for this, we have a constitutional convention,” Santorum said.

“Interviews with a dozen people involved in the constitutional convention movement, along with documents and audio recordings reviewed by Insider, reveal a sprawling, well-funded — at least partly by cryptocurrency — and impassioned campaign taking root across multiple states.”

Today in Washington

At 2:45 p.m., Biden will take part virtually in an event with Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) as she signs an executive directive to implement the CHIPS and Science Act.

In closing

ERIC v. ERIC

ICYMI: Trump endorses ‘ERIC’ in Missouri primary, a name shared by rivals

Thanks for reading. See you tomorrow.

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