The Morning Dispatch: An Inside Look at the Tense Iran Briefing on Capitol Hill

Plus, Trump addresses the nation, and are impeachment articles finally headed to the Senate?

Happy Thursday! We’re grateful for all of our regular Morning Dispatch readers, who obviously made up the 28 percent in this survey who can accurately identify Iran on a map.

Quick Hits: What You Need to Know

  • Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg declared Wednesday that she is “cancer free” heading into 2020. 

  • Nancy Pelosi announced the House will vote today on a War Powers resolution designed to inhibit any military action against Iran.

  • A federal appeals court ruled that the Trump administration could use $3.6 billion in military funds for the border wall after a lower court said it couldn’t last month.

  • And we’ll admit to stretching the definition of “need to know” on this last one. British Royals Prince Harry and Meghan Markle announced their intention to “step back as 'senior' members of the Royal Family and work to become financially independent.” (Our Chicago-born Morning Dispatcher’s favorite headline comes from the Tribune: “Northwestern graduate moving closer to home after spending time abroad.” Always find the local angle!)

The Nation Exhales on Iran … For Now

A tense and uncertain evening Tuesday was followed by a day of relief and relative calm on Wednesday, as the leaders of Iran and the United States seemed eager to step back from the conflict that had escalated over the preceding 12 days. 

After a series of Iranian attacks on U.S. military bases that caused no casualties and relatively little damage, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif declared that Iran had “concluded proportionate measures” in response to the killing of Qassem Suleimani. “We do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression,” Zarif tweeted. 

President Donald Trump addressed the nation from the White House, declaring that “no Americans were harmed in last night’s attack by the Iranian regime.”

“We suffered no casualties,” Trump said. “All of our soldiers are safe, and only minimal damage was sustained at our military bases.”

His conclusion: “Iran appears to be standing down.”

Republicans were eager to declare it a conditional victory. “If the dust settles, and all we have at the end of it is we've taken the world's top terrorist mastermind off the battlefield and they've lobbed a few missiles into the desert and beat their chest for their domestic audience,” Rep. Mike Gallagher, Marine veteran and member of the House Armed Services Committee tells The Dispatch, “It's hard for me to interpret this as anything other than a massive win for the Trump administration.” 

(You can read Declan’s full interview with Gallagher here.)

As leaders of both nations welcomed this moment of de-escalation, they also made clear the pause was temporary. “They were slapped last night, but such military actions are not enough,” Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, warned in speech from the holy city of Qom. “The corruptive presence of the U.S. in the West Asian region must be stopped.”

Trump announced the immediate imposition of new sanctions meant to further weaken Iran’s struggling economy and twice promised that Iran would not become a nuclear power on his watch. 

“As long as I am president of the United States, Iran will never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon,” Trump declared in his first words after stepping up to the microphone, before beginning his prepared remarks. He revisited the point moments later, promising Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons will “never” threaten the civilized world.

Trump’s focus on Iran’s nuclear program isn’t new. In recent months, Trump administration national security officials have discussed possible nuclear-related targets if the Islamic Republic were to quickly accelerate its uranium enrichment efforts prohibited under the Iran Nuclear Deal. And Iranian leaders responded to the killing of Suleimani by declaring they would no longer abide by the enrichment limits of that deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). A regime statement read on Iranian state television declared: “Iran will continue its nuclear enrichment with no restrictions .... and based on its technical needs.” 

Several of those Trump listens to most closely on Iran matters—including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tom Cotton—have been leading voices for aggressive measures to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions. (So, too, was Trump’s former National Security Adviser, John Bolton.) Sources familiar with White House discussions on Iran tell The Dispatch that potential targets include the Fordow nuclear plant, a once-secret nuclear facility that began reintroducing uranium gas intro centrifuges in November.

At War Over War Powers

Such possible future attacks were the focus of a tense Iran briefing on Capitol Hill Wednesday, as lawmakers grilled representatives from the Trump administration on both policy and process related to the tensions with Iran. The briefing, which lasted an hour and 15 minutes, included CIA Director Gina Haspel, Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper. The discussion focused on two main issues: the intelligence used to support the decision to kill Qassem Suleimani, and the role of Congress in authorizing current and future military operations.

On the former, reactions to the briefing split largely—though not entirely—along party lines. Reliable Trump supporters like Rep. Mark Meadows and Sen. Marco Rubio offered enthusiastic and unqualified backing to the president. "The information that was shared was both compelling and decisive," said Meadows. "This was a clear and present danger for American interests and American individuals." Rubio agreed, tweeting: 

Sources familiar with the discussion tell The Dispatch that Senate Democrats were frustrated when Esper refused to answer questions about when the administration would consult Congress in the event of future military operations against Iran. According to a Republican staffer familiar with the discussion: “When Esper, who was at the briefing to discuss the disruption to Iran's chain of command, appropriately deferred to Assistant AG Steven Engel, Democrats made a show of repeatedly talking over the Department of Justice answer and claiming that Esper was refusing to answer questions.” 

But some Republicans were frustrated, too. Speaking to reporters afterward, Utah Senator Mike Lee said it was “probably the worst briefing I have seen, at least on a military issue, in the nine years I’ve served in the United States Senate.” He expanded on that conclusion in an interview with The Dispatch. “They just filibustered,” Lee said of the briefers. “We’d ask them questions and they didn’t really engage,” he added, imitating one of the exchanges. “Tell us about the imminent threat. It was really imminent. It was only days away from happening.” And: “Where? Somewhere in the region.”

Sources described the briefers as “arrogant” and “too cool for school.” They seemed to regard briefing Congress as a choice—and a nuisance, according to sources in the room.

Senator Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware, pressed for answers on scenarios under which the administration would be sure to come to Congress for authorization of future military operations. Coons floated a hypothetical where the Trump administration determined that Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was the regime’s greatest threat with Suleimani gone. After all, Khamenei made comments that the attacks Tuesday weren’t enough and has recommitted Iran to its pursuit of nuclear weapons. If you wanted to target Khamenei, Coons asked, surely you would come to Congress, right? The administration officials wouldn’t answer. 

The limited time allotted for the briefing meant that fewer than a dozen lawmakers had the opportunity to ask questions, leaving others frustrated. As the session was wrapping up, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer asked Pompeo whether members could expect to have their questions answered at additional briefings in the coming days. Pompeo responded: “No.”

The Senate Impeachment Trial Is Here ... Maybe

Three weeks (and like 427 news cycles) after the House passed two articles of impeachment against Donald Trump, it looks like the Senate trial against the president might finally be poised to begin. 

Speaker Nancy Pelosi still has not signaled that she is prepared to transmit the articles to the Senate for trial, arguing in a letter to colleagues this week that McConnell’s process “is not only unfair but designed to deprive Senators and the American people of crucial documents and testimony." But whatever political leverage the speaker may have enjoyed in her own caucus is fading. No concessions have been made—at least publicly—by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and even Senate Democrats have signaled they are sick of waiting.

Earlier this week, Senator Angus King said in an interview on MSNBC that "it is time for the speaker to send" the articles. The next day, Senators Chris Murphy,  Joe Manchin, and Jon Tester all publicly agreed. And yesterday, even staunch liberals like Senator Richard Blumenthal were telling reporters that "we are reaching a point where the articles of impeachment should be sent. Senator Dianne Feinstein directly took on Pelosi’s argument for delay, saying “the longer it goes on the less urgent it becomes so if it’s serious and urgent, send them over.”

Despite Speaker Pelosi's delay, Article I Section 3 is unambiguous that "the Senate shall have the sole Power to try all Impeachments." There is no mention of floor managers from the House to conduct the prosecution or even whether the Senate would be required to wait for the articles to be formally transmitted from the House. And while removing a president may require two-thirds of the Senate, the rules for the trial require only a majority of senators to agree.

Although only two presidents have ever been tried in the Senate, 15 judges have been impeached with eight convicted, offering plenty of precedent for Senate impeachment trials. McConnell has signaled to colleagues that he intends to follow the Clinton rules package from his 1999 trial. As described by Politico:

The House will be allowed to present its case against Trump, and then the president’s defense team can respond. At that point, McConnell or any GOP senator could move to end the trial and call for a final vote on the charges against Trump. Or Democrats could try to seek witness testimony or the introduction of new documentary evidence. It will be up to a majority of the Senate to decide.

Reps. Adam Schiff and Jerry Nadler have been frequently mentioned as a likely leaders for the House team managing the prosecution. For the defense, the president is likely to rely on a combination of House members like Jim Jordan and John Ratcliffe, his White House Counsel Pat Cippolone, and personal attorneys like Jay Sekulow. 

During this cold winter in the nation's capital, a seat in the gallery could quickly become the hottest ticket in town. (Though no word yet on how tickets will be distributed in 2020, during the impeachment trial of Andrew Johnson in 1868, each Senator received six tickets for each day of trial.)

Worth Your Time

  • A piece of good news to report: The American Cancer Society announced that the cancer mortality rate dropped by 2.2 percent last year—the biggest single-year drop on record. Laurie McGinley of the Washington Post will walk you through the details.

  • Debates over the ethics of gene therapy were all the rage a few decades ago, but died down a bit once some of the shine came off and it became clear that the technology wasn’t nearly as ready as some scientists had thought. Now, however, a new genetic modification debate is about to rear its head: one centered around the gene drive, a mechanism by which an organism can be forced to propagate a specific allele in all its offspring—which will then themselves propagate offspring with that same allele, and on and on to time out of mind. Jennifer Kahn has much more on the intriguing and harrowing prospect in this week’s New York Times Magazine

  • Jason Turbow’s story for Grub Street on the New York bagel union taking on the Mafia is insane. “Ultimately, the union handled the Mafia the same way that it handled nearly all extreme issues with management: full public confrontation.”

Presented Without Comment

Something Fun

Nine years ago Wednesday, Marshawn Lynch went Beast Mode. Now an old man who has come out of retirement twice, Lynch goes up against Steve’s Packers on Sunday. Good luck!

Toeing the Company Line

  • The Dispatch Podcast is finally here! While we await all the bells and whistles, we hijacked Jonah’s Remnant feed to bring you the inaugural episode of our flagship podcast. Steve, Jonah, David, and Sarah, sittin’ around a table and talking the three I’s: Iran, impeachment, and Iberian wine. What more could you want?

  • On the home page, AEI’s Yuval Levin, perhaps the leading public intellectual on the center-right these days, offers a fascinating look at how our supercharged political climate encourages people to treat everything as an apocalyptic danger, and all the problems that result.

  • Your Morning Dispatchers are multitasking! Also on the home page, you can read Andrew’s piece on the rise and fall of indicted Rep. Duncan Hunter, a follow-up on his terrific report from Hunter’s district in the late Weekly Standard, and Declan’s aforementioned interview with Rep. Mike Gallagher.

Let Us Know

Apparently there is a company in New York looking to hire interns that are not only unpaid, but who will pay the company $15 per hour to work there. They call it a “reverse-financed internship.” Is there any job, dear reader, that you would pay to do?

(Mike Bloomberg, if you’re reading this, we know you’d like to buy the presidency. And Gordon Sondland, if you’re reading this, we know you bought your ambassadorship. And—okay, maybe any job outside politics!)

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Sarah Isgur (@whignewtons), David French (@DavidAFrench), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).

Photograph of Donald Trump addressing the nation from the White House on January 8 by Win McNamee/Getty Images.