The Morning Dispatch: Iran Responds

Plus, a note from the boss about the year ahead for The Dispatch.

Happy Monday! Last week, we could tell ourselves the holidays were still with us. Now that they’re firmly in the rear view mirror, however, we’re turning to what 2020 has in store. Below, you can read a note from our CEO Steve Hayes about our upcoming full launch and what you can expect from us over the weeks ahead.

Quick Hits: What You Need to Know

  • Iran, furious as expected over the Thursday killing of Qassem Suleimani, announced Sunday it would no longer abide by the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal, including the limitations on uranium enrichment. While the Trump administration pulled out of the deal in 2018, Iran had remained in it alongside the other major signatories to the deal, including China, Russia, and the EU.

  • The Iraqi parliament on Sunday passed a non-binding resolution calling on the prime minister to expel the U.S. forces that still remain there.

  • President Trump spent the weekend rattling his own saber at Tehran, warning that any Iranian assault on U.S. assets would be met with a devastating counterattack, potentially including important cultural sites. 

  • Bellicosity with Iran has created a new major issue for Democratic presidential candidates to navigate: Bernie Sanders reminded voters of his unrivaled anti-war credentials, while Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg focused on the question of Trump’s ability to manage a possible war with Iran. Elizabeth Warren, meanwhile, drew the ire of some leftists by trying to split the difference, calling Suleimani a murderer but insisting the U.S. must “avoid another costly war.” 

  • Accused serial rapist Harvey Weinstein’s trial begins Monday in New York. The former movie mogul, who has been accused of sexual misconduct by dozens of women, faces charges for an alleged rape in 2013 and another alleged forcible sex act in 2006, and he faces up to life in prison.

Note From Steve Hayes

We’re officially launching The Dispatch tomorrow, and we wanted you—our members and regular readers—to be among the first to know.

Wait, you ask, if you haven’t launched yet how am I reading this?

We decided long ago that if this crazy idea of ours became a reality, we’d build it slowly and deliberately. We kept Jonah’s G-File newsletter and Remnant podcast going throughout the summer. We “soft launched” in early October, publishing The Morning Dispatch three days a week and offering an explanation of what we we’re doing—and why.

We continued to build throughout the fall, adding several new members to the staff and introducing David French’s newsletter, The French Press, along with The Dispatch Fact Check. Our second podcast, Advisory Opinions, debuted in December. We’re building the airplane as we speed down the runway.

Tomorrow, if all goes according to plan, that airplane lifts off.

This week, we’ll be rolling out a newsletter focusing on national security and foreign policy from one of the smartest analysts in the country, Tom Joscelyn of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. We’ll be kicking off our flagship podcast, released weekly and hosted by Sarah Isgur. And we’ll be launching our full website, which will feature thoughtful, fact-based reporting and analysis on politics, policy, and culture from some of the country’s top writers and thinkers.

The website won’t have auto-play ads, pop-ups, pop-unders, or fake news clickbait boxes. It will be simple and spare—two or three pieces each day, published in the morning. It’ll feature easy-to-find links to our newsletters and podcasts, too.

We aim to be timely and topical, but we’re not going to chase the news cycle. We might have a context-heavy story on the coming Afghanistan peace deal, an explainer on the implications of Medicare for All, and a look at Pete Buttigieg’s claim that the Founders didn’t know slavery was bad. Or we’ll have David French on the latest free speech debates, Jonah Goldberg on the historical case for free trade (with a Simpsons reference), and Sarah Isgur on presidential campaign strategy.

If you want a quick hit summarizing random Twitter reactions to the latest outrage, or if you’re dying to know what Matt Gaetz said on Fox & Friends about President Trump’s tweet attacking AOC, you’re better off going elsewhere.

This won’t be a party-hats-and-noisemakers launch; things will be pretty low key. And we’re not going to stop building. We have new podcasts and newsletters planned for the coming weeks. We’re hard at work, with our partners at Substack, on a first-class discussion community for those of you who become members—an alternative to the often-frustrating shout fests on social media. And we’re developing better ways to deliver the editorial content you want, in just the ways you want to receive it.

We’ll have more details tomorrow. For now, thanks for reading and listening. If you haven’t become a member yet, please consider doing so here. If you want to keep sampling, that’s okay, too. Our entire editorial offering will remain free for several weeks.

Tensions With Iran Ratchet Up

There was no question that the killing of Iranian general and terror leader Qassem Suleimani would have significant consequences. And just three days later, we’re beginning to see indications of just how momentous an event it was.

The U.S.-led coalition suspended operations against ISIS. The regime in Iran announced that it was officially abandoning the limits on uranium enrichment agreed to in the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. The Iraqi parliament passed a non-binding resolution calling for the expulsion of U.S. troops—a vote the Trump administration tried to block, according to Jonathan Swan of Axios.

In response, President Donald Trump, who has spoken of ending U.S. involvement in “endless wars” in the Middle East, threatened to charge Iraq for the use of U.S. airbases or impose harsh sanctions. “We have a very extraordinarily expensive air base that’s there,” Mr. Trump said of Iraq. “It cost billions of dollars to build. Long before my time. We’re not leaving unless they pay us back for it.” He added: “If they do ask us to leave, if we don’t do it in a very friendly basis, we will charge them sanctions like they’ve never seen before ever. It’ll make Iranian sanctions look somewhat tame.”

Trump responded to a steady stream of threats from Iranian officials with Trumpian excess, suggesting that the U.S. would target Iranian cultural landmarks. After Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sought to tamp down concern about Trump’s threat by offering assurances that the U.S. would act in accordance with international law, Trump reiterated the warning. “If Iran strikes any Americans, or American assets …. we have targeted 52 Iranian sites (representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago), some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture, and those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD. The USA wants no more threats!”

Imminent … or Not?

In the immediate aftermath of the U.S. strikes on Suleimani’s convoy, top U.S.. officials pointed to intelligence reporting about “imminent” attacks planned by Suleimani. Trump himself claimed Suleimani was “planning a very major attack” when he was killed. A report from Reuters Saturday, notably sourced both to Iraqis sympathetic to the Iranians and those opposed to them, seemed to back up the administration’s claims. Suleimani “instructed his top ally in Iraq, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, and other powerful militia leaders to step up attacks on U.S. targets in the country using sophisticated new weapons provided by Iran, two militia commanders and two security sources briefed on the gathering told Reuters.”

But reporting from the New York Times’ Rukmini Callimachi, one of the most reliable reporters covering jihadism and the Middle East, found claims of an “imminent” attack lacking evidence.

Appearing on CNN’s State of the Union with Jake Tapper, Pompeo dismissed the debate over imminence.

Tapper: “When you say the attacks were imminent, how imminent were they? We talking about days? We talking about weeks?”

Pompeo: “If you're an American in the region, days and weeks, this is not something that's relevant. We have to prepare. We have to be ready. And we took a bad guy off the battlefield. We made the right decision. There is less risk today to American forces in the region as a result of that attack.”

Slouching Toward the Impeachment Trial

As President Trump and his allies gird themselves for his impeachment trial before the Senate, their defense of his conduct regarding Ukraine remains simple. Trump, they maintain, asked the Ukrainian government to investigate Joe Biden and the DNC, not because they were his political rivals, but because the president desired to stamp out corruption abroad. Yes, he briefly withheld congressionally appropriated military aid—but that wasn’t extortion, because the Ukrainians didn’t know about it. And anyway, the aid was eventually released, so what’s the fuss?

Those first two points—that Trump’s interest was altruistic and that the Ukrainians didn’t know about the aid holdup—were already on extremely shaky footing by the time the House punched Trump’s ticket for impeachment and took off for Christmas. Then, last week, a massive scoop from national security blog Just Security took a sledgehammer to the third point: that no harm was done due to the delayed aid.

In December, a court ordered the Trump administration under the Freedom of Information Act to release hundreds of pages of emails between the Defense Department and the White House related to the hold on Ukraine aid. They released the emails, but with heavy redactions. Last week, Just Security obtained and published the unredacted emails. What they show is remarkable. As summer passed into fall and the hold stretched on, an increasingly agitated Defense Department pestered the White House for weeks on end about what had happened with the aid, warning that the longer it was withheld, the less likely it was that they’d actually be able to send it in time. (In accordance with federal law, any aid money not spent by September 30 would be automatically returned to the U.S. Treasury.)

A few weeks after the first July 25 hold, DoD officials were already saying it would make the aid difficult to allocate in time: “As of 12 AUG I don’t think we can agree that the pause ‘will not preclude timely execution,’” Elaine McCusker, acting Pentagon comptroller, wrote in an August 9 email to top OMB officials. She would repeat the warning and pester the White House for clarity on how long the hold would last multiple times over the following weeks.

In return, the Office of Management and Budget—the White House arm that supervises executive agency actions—stonewalled and ignored these requests and warnings.

When the story about the delay broke in Politico in late August and immediately became a scandal, the White House, rushing to do damage control, pushed talking points insisting that “no action has been taken… that would preclude the obligation of these funds before the end of the fiscal year”—never mind that the Pentagon had for weeks been insisting exactly the opposite.  

“OMB lawyers continue to consistently mischaracterize the process and the information we have provided,” McCusker complained in an email the day before the story broke. “They keep repeating that this pause will not impact DOD’s ability to execute on time.”

A few days later, as the controversy continued to grow, OMB official Michael Duffey emailed McCusker and informed her it was due to the Pentagon’s own negligence if they could not fill their aid obligations in time—as, it turned out, they could not.

“You can’t be serious,” she responded. “I am speechless.”

Does It Make A Difference?

In a vacuum, this report would seem like very bad news for the president’s impeachment prospects. For months, we’ve seen Trump and friends insisting he didn’t do a thing wrong with regard to Ukraine—but if the situation was already perfect, why tell so many lies to make things look better than they are? When a court orders you to release your internal communications, why make so many redactions that serve no national security purpose, but instead only serve to cover up the fact that those lies were lies? There’s a term for this: “Acting guilty.”

Then again, these revelations don’t do much to change the underlying political pressures that still seem likely to govern the Senate trial. Trump retains the loyalty of a vast majority of Republican voters, and the vast majority of Republican senators know it. Trump stands ready to rain down political fire on any member of his caucus who even thinks of crossing him at trial.

Don’t be surprised, then, if despite the growing pile of evidence the GOP line remains the same: This is a partisan attempt to overturn an election, and President Trump did nothing wrong.

Worth Your Time

  • Sunday’s edition of The Browser—a great “Best of the Internet” newsletter we highly recommend—pointed us to this piece from Jeffrey Tucker of the American Institute for Economic Research, in which Tucker complains about the fact that a series of busybody environmental regulations have reduced the once-proud U.S. dishwasher to a machine that merely pushes food around on your utensils and smudges up your dishes. It’s a good read, but you might be better off reading this 2011 Weekly Standard piece on the same subject by Jonathan Last, who presents the story of how local political grift got us all into this mess in the first place with all the manic fury of a dishwashing hobbyist scorned. 

  • Is it just us, or are more and more people fabricating stories of politically tinged outrages happening to them in a misguided effort to get instafamous? Over at NRO, Kevin Williamson’s got a jeremiad up about the whole wretched phenomenon. 

  • Look, we’ll level with you: We at The Dispatch may be trying to transcend all the petty mean-spirited partisanship that makes so much of what passes for news these days such a drag, but that doesn’t mean we’re above a little schadenfreude now and then. If you, like us, are punch-drunk happy over the New England Patriots getting set down by the Tennessee Titans—the Tennessee Titans!—on Wild Card Saturday, then this postmortem from Danny Heifetz at The Ringer should make your spirit sing. 

Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • In the Friday G-File, Jonah talked through the Suleimani killing and some related thoughts about the difference between moral and legal justice, the difference between the state and the government, and the distance between Seb Gorka and Michael Moore. 

  • In the latest episode of Advisory Opinions, Sarah and David discuss the constitutional questions surrounding the Suleimani’s killing, take a look at the latest Democratic primary fundraising numbers, and Sarah’s eagle expertise. Give it a listen here, and be sure to subscribe!

  • David’s Sunday French Press goes deep on the split in the United Methodist Church—why it happened and what it means—before providing another look at the masculinity crisis and the importance of mentorship.

  • Last week, a maliciously edited clip of Joe Biden rocketed around the internet, falsely purporting to show the 2020 Democrat firing off quotes about how American culture “is not imported from some African nation or some Asian nation” but rather is “our English, jurisprudential culture, our European culture.” Worry not, dear reader: as our latest Dispatch Fact Check demonstrates, Biden was not saying European culture was good, he was saying it was bad

Let Us Know

Joe Biden told a New Hampshire audience earlier this week that he’d consider naming a Republican as his vice president, but that he “can't think of one right now.”

There’s a snowball’s chance in hell of this happening, but in our hyper-partisan era even the semblance of an olive branch can prove refreshing.

Help us, dear readers, think of the best possible Republican for the job.

  • Mike Pence. Four! More! Years! (of No. 2!)

  • Jeff Flake. Repeat after me: Country Over Party

  • Eric Trump. Joe’s kid Hunter has caused all sorts of problems for Donald, so it’s only fair that one of 45’s should get to return the favor.

  • Chris Christie. Corruption scandals involving bridges and beaches torpedoed Christie’s once-promising national outlook, so maybe it’s time he leaned into it and reinvented himself as a union Democrat!

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).

Photograph of portraits of Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (R) and the former Ayatollah Khomeini in Tehran by John Moore/Getty Images.