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Trump hit on Iran bad guy is his highest-stakes gamble

Iran Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani, center, in

Iran Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani, center, in 2016 in Tehran. Credit: Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP

There's a plan, right?

Over and over, as president and before, Donald Trump has been a loud skeptic about American involvement in the Middle East. When he ordered U.S. troops out of the way for Turkey's invasion of northern Syria in October, this is what he told the American people:

"We have spent $8 trillion on wars in the Middle East … But after all that money was spent and all of those lives lost, the young men and women gravely wounded — so many — the Middle East is less safe, less stable, and less secure than before these conflicts began."

That's never looked truer than now, after Trump ordered a U.S. military strike at the Baghdad airport in Iraq that killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force and said to be the second-most powerful man in Iran.

The Pentagon confirmed the hit, saying Soleimani “was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region" and was behind many past deadly attacks on U.S. forces, as well as other acts of state-sponsored terrorism.

There's no dispute that Soleimani was an extremely bad guy with barrels of blood on his hands. There's also little question in the aftermath of the attack that Iran will look for ways to retaliate that could pose grave new threats to Americans and the region's stability.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) praised Trump's decision. "The price of killing and injuring Americans has just gone up drastically," he tweeted. But Graham also told the Daily Beast: "We need to get ready for a major pushback. Our people in Iraq and the Middle East are going to be targeted. We need to be ready to defend our people in the Middle East. I think we need to be ready for a big counterpunch."

Based on past performance, there's another unsettling unknown: Has Trump thought through the consequences of a new conflict and the plans to confront them based on a long-range strategy, rather than impulse? Is he listening to those who know best, or will he decide he knows more than all the rest? Has he lined up allies, or is the U.S. going it alone? He did not share his thoughts on Thursday night. He just tweeted without comment an image of the American flag.

Janison: Slapstick time is over

Until Thursday night, Trump had skirted crisis for the first three years of his presidency even as a constant feature of his foreign policy has been vaudeville-style diplomacy, writes Newsday's Dan Janison.

Nuclear tensions over North Korea are on the rise again, but Trump had jokes. When Kim Jong Un launched his latest round of threats of a "Christmas gift," Trump said, "Maybe it's a nice present. Maybe it's a present where he sends me a beautiful vase as opposed to a missile test."

Before the airstrike on Soleimani, Trump tweeted to Iran that if U.S. interests are threatened, the Tehran regime "will pay a very BIG PRICE! This is not a Warning, it is a Threat. Happy New Year!"

The escalation marks an end, unacknowledged, to his previous suggestions that harsher sanctions had changed Iran's attitude. Back in June, he said: “Look what has happened to Iran. Iran, when I first came into office, was a terror. Now they’re pulling back because they’ve got serious economic problems.”

Got cash or cashing it in

The new year began with 15 candidates for the Democratic nomination for president, but about half of them were largely out of sight and others were just about out of cash. 

On Jan. 2, one of those contenders, Julián Castro, got out of the race. "With only a month until the Iowa Caucuses, and given the circumstances of this campaign season, I've determined that it simply isn't our time," said the only Latino candidate. Marianne Williamson, the New Age author absent from the debate stage since July, still has a campaign, but no campaign staff. She laid off all of them on Tuesday, reports said.

Fundraising numbers released Thursday pointed to some of those with the resources to carry on. In the final three months of 2019, Bernie Sanders raised $34.5 million, an increase of more than $9 million over his third-quarter haul. Pete Buttigieg collected $24.7 million. Joe Biden was third, with $22.7 million, but it was his best quarter so far. Andrew Yang raised more than $16.5 million, also a personal best. Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar weren't in the early batch of reports.

So far, only five candidates — Biden, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, Sanders and Warren — have met the polling and funding qualifications for the next Democratic debate, scheduled for Jan. 14 in Iowa. A lull in early-state polling has Yang and Cory Booker still on the outside looking in.

Other Democrats still running, with lesser visibility or apparent viability, are Tulsi Gabbard, John Delaney, Michael Bennet and Deval Patrick. Very visible thanks to their self-funded advertising, though also back in the pack, are billionaires Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg.

Bloomberg doesn't care to rattle China

Conventional fundraising is irrelevant to Bloomberg, who is drawing on his $59 billion fortune to outspend everyone. How he grows and guards his fortune, and how it could intersect with his foreign policy positions, is inviting scrutiny. That applies especially on China, where his company, Bloomberg LP, does big business providing financial data.

Amid mass pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and human rights activists decrying China’s imprisonment of Muslim minorities, Bloomberg has seemed to go out of his way to defend Beijing. He said in a September television interview that Chinese President Xi Jinping “is not a dictator” but just "has a constituency to respond to," The Washington Post reports.

Questions have been raised about whether his news service has held back from publishing information that would offend the Chinese leadership. After an award-winning story about Xi's family finances, the company suffered retaliation and spiked a follow-up investigation in 2013. The following year, asked on CNBC whether Bloomberg News "muzzled" reporters, Bloomberg responded: “In China, they have rules about what you can publish. We follow those rules. If you don’t follow the rules, you’re not in the country.”

The company's business in China has been on the upswing, and Bloomberg has been an advocate for Beijing-friendly policies, such as making it easier for U.S. companies to do business in Chinese currency.

Vapor trail of retreat

Backing away from Trump's original plan, U.S. health officials said they will ban most flavored e-cigarettes popular with underage teenagers. But there are major exceptions that benefit vaping manufacturers, retailers and adults who use the nicotine-emitting devices.

The new policy will spare a significant portion of the multibillion-dollar vaping market. Anti-tobacco advocates condemned the concessions.

On Tuesday, ahead of the announcement, Trump told reporters, “We have to protect our families,” but "at the same time, it’s a big industry. We want to protect the industry.”

Immigration barriers get higher

While Trump's border wall remains more imaginary than real, his administration has put up formidable real barriers to immigration, especially the legal kind, through bureaucratic maneuvers, HuffPost reports.

Denials for H-1B visas for skilled workers have more than doubled, as have wait times for citizenship. Processing times for visas of all kinds is up 46% even as fewer people are applying. In 2018, the United States added just 200,000 immigrants to the population, 70% less than the year before.

While White House aide Stephen Miller has been the face of hard-line policy, lesser-known restrictionist-minded officials have been salted throughout relevant agencies. "They wanted to reduce the number of people who could get in under any category: illegals, legals, refugees, asylum-seekers — everything," a former Homeland Security official said.

Staffers were pushed to dig up evidence for their preferred policies, even when the facts didn’t match. Officials looked for ways to portray conditions in countries on the Temporary Protected Status list, such as Haiti, as better than they were. "Be creative," one research staffer was told.

What else is happening:

  • Newly unredacted emails on the frozen U.S. military aid to Ukraine show Office of Management and Budget official Michael Duffey told Pentagon officials in August there was “clear direction from POTUS to continue to hold.” The quote was blacked out in a previous redacted version. Democrats said the revelation bolsters their argument to seek witnesses and documents for the Senate impeachment trial.
  • Secretary of State Mike Pompeo canceled a planned trip to Ukraine. The State Department cited his need to stay in Washington after tensions escalated in Iraq.
  • The Trump campaign showed its fundraising prowess in the fourth quarter, raising $46 million and bringing its cash on hand to almost $103 million.
  • Trump never took action after saying last summer he was "very strongly" considering clemency for former Democratic Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, serving 14 years for corruption. Perhaps to get Trump's attention, Blagojevich wrote a column on the conservative Newsmax site arguing that current House Democrats would have tried to impeach Abraham Lincoln.
  • The House Judiciary Committee will contend in court Friday in court that it still needs information quickly from former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation even though the House impeached Trump last month, Roll Call reported. The lawyers suggested the evidence would show a "pattern of obstructive" behavior as alleged in the Ukraine-related case.
  • Biden told an Iowa voter that as president, he would nominate former President Barack Obama to the Supreme Court — if he would accept it. In past interviews, Obama hasn't been enthusiastic about the idea.

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