Victory lap or strategic lapse?
Cross visiting a war zone off the list of promises Donald Trump has yet to fulfill. In an unannounced trip with extreme security precautions, the president and first lady Melania Trump flew to Iraq and met with U.S. service members at the al-Asad Airbase in the country's west, about 120 miles from the Syrian border.
During the height of the Islamic State group's military power, the base was on the front lines, stormed by suicide attackers in 2016. Iraqi forces, with U.S. support, rolled them back, and Trump tried to sell his strategy to keep them from rising again, including an American pullout from Syria.
He told "the generals" after a series of six-month extensions it was time to go, Trump said. “We’ve knocked them out. We’ve knocked them silly,” the president told the troops. He'll leave the job to Turkey, "who wants to knock them out also," because "The United States cannot continue to be the policeman of the world" and "We're no longer the suckers." (Click here for video.)
Trump is betting against the advice of allies and national security advisers, including exiting Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, that his decision heightens the risk of an ISIS comeback and a repeat of his predecessors' mistakes.
George W. Bush's "mission accomplished" speech after the toppling of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was followed by a bloody insurgency that bogged down the U.S. for years. Barack Obama ignored conservative critics when he pulled U.S. forces out of Iraq and fatefully underestimated ISIS as a "junior varsity" outfit before it seized vast swaths of Iraqi territory and parts of Syria, forcing Obama to get back in.
Trump said the U.S. will keep its 5,200 troops in Iraq in case it has to get back in the fight. “In fact, we could use this as the base if we wanted to do something in Syria,” he said. “If we see something happening with ISIS that we don’t like, we can hit them so fast and so hard they really won’t know what the hell happened,” Trump said.
Trump's remarks highlight a contradiction in his messaging, The Washington Post noted. The troops wouldn't be needed there to continue supporting Iraqi forces if a lasting victory was secure. Trump’s decision not to meet any Iraqi officials during Wednesday’s visit risks jeopardizing support for the U.S. troop presence, which faces opposition in particular from pro-Iran elements there, the Post reported.
Dark plane, white knuckles
Trump admitted trepidations about the trip, telling reporters:
"I had concerns about the institution of the presidency. Not for myself personally. I had concerns for the first lady, I will tell you. But if you would have seen what we had to go through in the darkened plane, with all the windows closed, with no light anywhere . . . pitch-black. I've been on many airplanes. All types and shapes and sizes. . . . So did I have a concern? Yes, I had a concern."
The secrecy was less than perfect. Social media users posted photos of a plane resembling the presidential aircraft flying over England. Others deduced its identity from flight-tracking websites despite its disguised call numbers. WikiLeaks tweeted out a map of the route the plane was taking. Further fueling suspicion: Trump's unusual abstinence from Twitter.
While the president's confession of fear may have been real, at least one claim to the assembled troops was fictional — that he'd gotten them their first pay raise in 10 years and that it was large and significant.
Heel no, he didn't go
How did Trump pass a draft physical in 1966 but get a medical exemption two years later on grounds he had bone spurs in his heels? It could have been a case of a Jamaica, Queens, podiatrist playing footsie with Trump's dad, Fred, who happened to be the doctor's landlord, The New York Times reported.
The podiatrist, Dr. Larry Braunstein, died in 2007. But his daughters say their father often told the story of coming to the aid of a young Donald Trump during the Vietnam War as a favor to his father, who repaid his diagnostic generosity by readily responding to Braunstein's needs as a tenant.
Elysa Braunstein said her father was proud at the time that he had helped a “famous guy” in New York real estate (in those days, it was Fred). She said the implication from her father was that Donald Trump did not have a disqualifying foot ailment. “But did he examine him? I don’t know,” she said.
No medical records were found, and the report said most detailed government medical records related to the draft no longer exist, according to the National Archives.
Janison: Glum pudding
It makes sense that Trump wasn't in the merriest of moods on Christmas Day, writes Newsday's Dan Janison.
Last month brought him a spectacular rebuke at the polls. He declared ownership in advance of the government shutdown. Wall Street had just had its worst Christmas Eve ever. Court papers in the Michael Cohen case gave him a new alter ego: "Individual One."
With the Democrats a week away from officially taking over the House and launching multiple investigations, and as special counsel Robert Mueller is yet to wrap up his inquiries, it's not looking like a happy new year for the president, either.
Soothing the markets
With Trump in Twitter silence during the long flight to Iraq, and a top White House economic adviser providing assurances that Fed Chairman Jerome Powell's job was "absolutely" safe, investor anxieties eased enough on Wednesday for a big rebound on Wall Street.
Erasing losses from the Christmas Eve plunge, the Dow Jones industrial average vaulted almost 1,100 points, its biggest one-day point gain ever. The S&P 500 recorded a similar gain of almost 5 percent and the NASDAQ jumped almost 6 percent. Still, despite the rally, stocks are on track for their worst December since 1931, during the depths of the Great Depression, with all three major indexes down more than 10 percent for the month to date.
How bad is Trump's White House turnover? Only 10 of 30 original senior aides are left, according to NPR. A swearing-in photo from Jan. 21, 2017, on Kellyanne Conway's office wall includes the since-departed Reince Priebus, Steve Bannon, Sean Spicer, Hope Hicks, Omarosa Manigault Newman, Tom Bossert and Don McGahn.
She calls it a reminder of "the durability and toughness and longevity that some of us have." Other survivors include Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, senior policy adviser Stephen Miller, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, social media director Dan Scavino. All had been part of Trump's campaign.
What else is happening:
- Long Island has begun to feel the effects of the shutdown, reports Newsday's Robert Brodsky. Taxpayers with appointments at IRS offices found them closed, as was the Small Business Administration's Hauppauge office. The National Weather Service in Upton was still in business, mostly, but employees are working without pay.
- Negotiations to end the shutdown remain at a standstill. Trump, disregarding past presidential practice of not taking up partisan fights in military settings, complained to the troops in Iraq that Democrats only opposed a wall "because I want it."
- While the deaths of two migrant children in just over two weeks raised strong new doubts Wednesday about the ability of U.S. border authorities to care for them, the Trump administration announced it will keep a Texas tent city holding more than 2,000 migrant teenagers open through early 2019, The Associated Press reported.
- The Trump administration said it will appeal a federal judge's order that blocked it from implementing new restrictions against asylum-seekers on the Mexican border.
- Press secretary Sanders' dad, the commentator and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, defended Trump for questioning a 7-year-old's belief in Santa Claus. "It wasn’t like he was boiling the little girl’s bunny rabbit in a pot on the stove or something," Huckabee said on "Fox and Friends."
- Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker has padded his resume by claiming to have been an Academic All-American while playing football at the University of Iowa, The Wall Street Journal reported. He received lower-level honors from the sponsoring organization and also received Academic All-Big Ten awards.
- Asked if he had a timeline for a longer-term replacement for Mattis, Trump said: "I will say that I've got everybody — everybody and his uncle wants that position. And also, by the way, everybody and her aunt — just so I won't be criticized for that last statement."
- The distinction between Trump's so-called "wall" and the more practical mix of fencing and other barriers across the lengthy southern border of the U.S. could make the difference in a deal to end the partial federal shutdown, the Times reports.