Jan 7, 2020

There is no plan in Iraq or Iran.

There is no plan in Iraq or Iran.

Soleimani's death may be good, but what's happening now is not.

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Today’s read: 8 minutes.

The dizzying day in the Middle East, a reader question about impeachment that is worth reading, an awesome Tangle shoutout and the latest polling numbers in the Democratic race.
ABC’s Martha Raddatz reports live from Iran, where burqas are compulsory for women in public. Screenshot: ABC News

At the top.

This morning, 56 people died and dozens more were injured after a stampede during the funeral of Gen. Qassem Soleimani. Soleimani is the Iranian military leader who was killed by a U.S. drone strike that set off a week of political turmoil in Iraq, Iran and here in the U.S. In the meantime, Iranian military leaders continue to threaten the U.S., saying 13 scenarios are being considered as acts of revenge.

Impeachment is back.

Congress just finished up their holiday recess, which means you’re going to start hearing about impeachment again. Impeachment was dominating the news before all this Iran-Iraq craziness. Keep your eye on Nancy Pelosi today. She’s been holding off on sending the articles of impeachment to the Senate with hopes of changing the terms of the trial, and new evidence has emerged since 2019. Also, former National Security Adviser John Bolton sounds like he may testify, but Senate Republicans seem hesitant to invite him to the stand. We’ve got more on all of this in today’s question of the day.

What D.C. is talking about.

The Middle East. This story isn’t going to go anywhere anytime soon, and it shouldn’t. Yesterday, journalists went for a spin after a letter to Iraqi’s military from the Department of Defense was released to the public. In the letter, the DoD notifies Iraq’s military that it will be moving troops “onward” from Iraq, in accordance with the parliament vote for troops to leave, and warned that there would be increased helicopter traffic during the dark hours of the day to remove troops. The letter justifiably caused a stir, as it would be huge news if more than 5,000 troops were leaving Iraq, especially after President Trump threatened to punish Iraq if it followed through on forcing troops out. But by the end of the day the story fell apart: Defense Secretary Mark Esper said there was “no decision to withdraw.” Then the Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, conceded that the “letter is a draft, it was a mistake, it was unsigned, it should not have been released… poorly worded, implies withdrawal, it’s not what’s happening.”

What it looked like at first…

And then…

What the left is saying.

It’d be nice to have a competent administration right now. The idea that the U.S. military is so disorganized it accidentally sent an Iraqi general a draft notice that it was planning to withdrawal from the country is simply stunning. Even folks in the middle were perplexed. Axios reporter Jonathan Swan said “the incompetence of this defies description.” Others on the left were a lot less forgiving. Political commentator John Oberlin said, “Only Trump and his idiotic fools can announce a surrender to Iraq by mistake.  It's the most incompetent administration in history. There is nothing remotely like it.” When asked about the letter on CNN, Bernie Sanders could only laugh. “It says that there is mass chaos and that the Trump administration hasn’t a clue about what it is doing… what frightens me most is that what we are seeing now sounds very much like what I observed — and what the American people observed — in terms of the war in Iraq.”

What the right is saying.

Milley, as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is the highest-ranking military officer in the country. He said it was an “honest mistake,” emphasizing that the letter “implied withdrawal” when “that’s not what’s happening.” He did say that there would be more U.S. troops moving around by helicopter to increase protection in Iraq, especially given a series of rocket attacks inside the “Green Zone,” a heavily fortified area in Baghdad where many U.S. officials and military members spend time. While some on the right speculated there would be a “partial withdrawal” and not a full one, Milley said the opposite: that the U.S. military was planning to bring soldiers in from Kuwait to add to the troop force in Baghdad. In the meantime, more moderate folks on the left and right are starting to coalesce around support for the strike that killed Soleimani. Nikki Haley, Trump’s former U.N. ambassador, went on Fox News to defend the strike last night. And The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed from Joe Lieberman, a former Democrat in the Senate, making the case that Trump’s strike was “morally, constitutionally and strategically correct.” Lieberman said the strike “deserves more bipartisan support than the begrudging or negative reactions it has received” and described it as “bold and unconventional,” saying that “no American can dispute that Soleimani created, supported and directed a network of terrorist organizations that spread havoc in the Middle East.”

My take.

When President Trump was running for office, there were a few major themes of his campaign. He was going to “make America great again” by bringing back a roaring economy. He was going to build the wall. He was going to stop wasting trillions of dollars overseas and bring our troops home. And he was going to run the country “like a business.” To be sure, these promises were appealing to millions of Americans — and they’re part of the reason he’s president now. Each of those promises, with the exception of a gross, expensive and useless border wall, were appealing to me. But if this is what “running America like a business” looks like, I think it’s worth considering the efficacy of that approach. Most CEOs would surely lose their jobs over the flounders of the last few weeks. It’s obvious that the administration’s plan in Iraq is not fully formed, and that the strike that killed Soleimani — and the aftermath of it — was not totally fleshed out.

Think about it this way: in a normal administration, a military decision like this would be quickly followed by decisive action inside Iraq. Troops would be leaving or entering in pre-planned deployments or withdrawals, fleshed-out policy proposals and draft resolutions would be hitting Congress, military generals would making the rounds on television with a set of talking points, coordination with allied nations in the region who have soldiers on the ground would activate a diverse coalition of forces working to protect Americans (and vice versa), Iraqi government officials — our allies — would have a clear picture of what the next steps in the plan are. None of that has happened. None of it exists. The military is accidentally sending letters to Iraq’s government stating its intention to do the exact opposite of what it’s doing. No global coalition of soldiers is swooping in to fill the vacuum or help out. Instead, it’s Russia offering Iraq an air defense system as questions about the U.S. future in the region run rampant. The Pentagon is contradicting the president, who threatened to bomb Iranian cultural sites. The president is claiming he wants to leave Iraq, but when Iraq’s government votes to expel U.S. forces he threatens them with economic sanctions. All the while 3,500 young Americans got unexpectedly deployed to the region to try and stabilize things.

As I’ve said, but it is worth repeating, the killing of Soleimani is not some travesty. There was justice in it for Iranians, Iraqis, Syrians and Americans. I found Lieberman’s op-ed quite compelling, and I’m totally open to the idea Soleimani’s death was a good thing for the world. He had blood on his hands (this 2013 New Yorker profile of Soleimani is the best story I’ve read about his time as the “Shadow Commander”). But what’s most important is the plan: the plan to keep our allies in Iraq safe. The plan to keep American soldiers safe. The plan to keep American citizens and Israel safe. The plan to prevent a catastrophe that brings more suffering onto Iranian and Iraqi citizens. Right now, it doesn’t appear there is one.

Your questions, answered.

Reminder: you can ask questions, too. All you have to do is reply to this email or tweet at Tangle News.

Q: Just before the Iran/Iraq debacle, there was news breaking of a set of unredacted emails that may be quite damning towards many of the anti-impeachment arguments made by the Right/Trump/Trump's camp. I tried finding good primary sources to see what exactly the emails contained but in the limited time I had couldn't make much sense out of it. Do you know any more about what's contained in those emails? How damning are they actually?

- Peter, Dallas, TX

Tangle: I was really glad to see this question come in yesterday because I had been planning to give a necessary update on the impeachment saga.

The news you are remembering — and the primary source of it — came from the website Just Security. They published an exclusive article from Kate Brannen, formerly a reporter at Politico, which uncovered a set of previously undisclosed emails that detail the White House’s focus on preventing any aid to Ukraine from being released. What was so stunning and newsworthy about the emails is how clearly they link President Trump to the decision not to release the military money to Ukraine.

“Clear direction from POTUS to continue to hold,” Michael Duffey, an associate director at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), wrote in one email.

The “too long, didn’t read” of the piece is this: Basically everyone from the Pentagon to the OMB was against the idea to withhold military aid to Ukraine. They also openly expressed concern that it was illegal. But when the White House turned over documents where people shared those concerns via email, they had redacted the comments that made the decision look most damaging or insane for the White House. So the unredacted emails show there was actually significant pushback from the Pentagon and from people inside the OMB who were worried about the legality of not sending the money, which had been approved in a bipartisan fashion by Congress. They also knew that Congress was going to go nuts if and when they found out the money was being held, which they eventually did. All of it, together, shows Trump was in fact directing the decision to hold the money from the top. The question is: “why?” We got those answers during Congressional testimony when basically everyone testified that there were discussions of an exchange between the two parties. Ukraine’s president wanted a White House meeting and military aide and Trump wanted investigations into Biden and the 2016 election. Trump and his allies have claimed that he also wanted assurances Ukraine’s corruption was in check, but that doesn’t explain why — when those assurances were given — the funds and White House meeting were still being withheld. As I’ve written before, the scheme was actually pretty simple.

The other thing you may have read about was the New York Times filing a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit for 20 emails between Trump’s acting chief of staff and someone at the OMB. These emails are another series of emails the administration is refusing to turn over, saying that releasing them would “inhibit the frank and candid exchange of views” in government decision-making. As the Times reports:

“The Trump administration’s move to withhold all the emails in full — not even disclosing the dates they were sent, or the shape of paragraphs covered by black lines — is a step beyond its heavy censorship of a related set of emails it released in response to another Freedom of Information Act lawsuit brought by the Center for Public Integrity.”

All of this is happening simultaneously as John Bolton, the former National Security Adviser who was involved in many of these issues, has now said he will testify if subpoenaed. Bolton is key because he’s said to have firsthand knowledge of how everything went down. He’s also a reminder of both the Democrats savviness and sloppiness in these hearings: on one hand, Pelosi holding the articles of impeachment has allowed all these new revelations to come out in the last few weeks, adding to the body of evidence against Trump. On the other hand, Senate Republicans are now hiding behind the defense that they shouldn’t call Bolton to testify because he wasn’t a part of the House hearings, where evidence gathering is supposed to take place. It’s fair but also cynical defense, and so far it looks like the Republicans in the Senate will get away with it. It’s just another price Democrats have paid for rushing the impeachment hearings to finish up before the New Year.

As for how damning the new emails are: the ones we’ve seen are quite damning. The Just Security story is worth reading. And I can only imagine the emails the administration is actively trying to hide are even worse. But the testimony against Trump and the dozens of bombshell news reports about what happened re: Ukraine was all pretty damning for the administration, too, and I don’t think he’s really paid the price yet politically. So in that sense, I’m not sure this moves the needle at all. I still believe what Trump did — ask a foreign leader to investigate his top political rival while withholding military aid Congress had approved — was pretty unprecedented in American history. It seems like we have the evidence this all went down as many Democrats say it did. But Trump supporters and most Republicans in Congress just don’t seem to think it’s an impeachable offense.

A story that matters.

The House is considering the PFAS Action Act this week. The bill would require the EPA to set a limit on per- and polyfluoruoalkyl substances (PFAS) in drinking water. The chemicals are some of the best-studied in the world, and Democrats want to designate them as hazardous. Research has shown the chemicals “never really go away” and can cause cancer in those who digest them frequently. In New Hampshire, a crucial early-voting state, Democrats are talking a lot about the PFAS regulations that have mostly gone undiscussed nationally. That’s because there were major water contamination issues across the state over the last few years. PFAS exists in lots of landfills and could require clean-up if the law designating them as hazardous were to pass. Republicans have opposed the bill, citing a Congressional Budget Office estimate that monitoring, treating and removing PFAS from drinking water as laid out in the legislation could cost several billion dollars in the first few years alone, and potentially hurt the EPA’s efforts to tackle the issue. There’s also been a lot of chemical company lobbying going on. The news outlet Waste Dive has a good, balanced look at the story here.

Hat tip.

Cheers Branden Harvey for this Tangle shoutout. One post like this drives 10-15 new subscribers Tangle and also motivates me to keep being the best I can be. If you like Tangle, and want to support the newsletter, please consider forwarding this email to friends or sharing a post like this on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram!


  • 21.3%. Bernie Sanders’ average polling support amongst Democrats in New Hampshire, according to FiveThirtyEight. This is the highest support amongst 2020 Democrats
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  • 14.4%. Elizabeth Warren’s average polling support amongst Democrats in New Hampshire, according to FiveThirtyEight. This is the third-highest support amongst 2020 Democrats.
  • 22.0%. Joe Biden’s average polling support amongst Democrats in Iowa, according to FiveThirtyEight. This is the highest support amongst 2020 Democrats.
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  • $2,910. The average cost of having a baby in the United States via a vaginal birth in 2008.
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  • This stunning graph comparing oxycodone consumption in America versus Europe:

Have a nice day.

Today’s good news is courtesy of something that is happening in my backyard in Bushwick, Brooklyn: an abandoned park has been transformed into a thriving garden scene. I first noticed this flourishing garden on my walk to the gym one morning. Soon enough, I met a young man named Kofi who was behind the park’s evolution from a worn-down playground full of drug dealers and trash to one of the coolest places in the neighborhood. With the help of the community, Kofi cleaned out the space, built a bunch of garden plots, a stage for performances and opened the doors to anyone who wanted to learn to grow vegetables. This summer I planted jalapeno peppers, tomatoes, strawberries and basil and got to learn from some elderly folks in the neighborhood every time I visited. His garden, and his work, was recently covered in a local newspaper, so I wanted to share his story. Click.

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