The Morning Dispatch: On the Trail in Pennsylvania

Plus, the DoJ IG report is out, as are years’ worth of documents detailing the United States’ obfuscation of the war in Afghanistan.

Happy Wednesday! Today’s newsletter was filed from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and Des Moines, Iowa.

Things are beginning to move very quickly in Washington. Monday and Tuesday were almost comically overstuffed news days: Articles of impeachment, handshake deals on two huge pieces of must-pass legislation (USMCA and the NDAA), a long-awaited inspector general’s report on the origins of the Russia investigation, a rowdy swing-state Trump rally—and a new trove of government documents detailing years of government malfeasance in the war in Afghanistan. 

Let’s get to it.

Quick Hits: What You Need to Know

  • The House of Representatives formally announced articles of impeachment against President Trump Tuesday, charging him with abuse of power and obstruction of Congress—but not the extortion or bribery House Democrats had frequently alleged in impeachment hearings.

  • The Trump administration and House Democrats finally reached a deal on the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement, and both sides are declaring victory. On politics, both sides may be correct. But the deal is a step backwards on free trade.

  • In another apparent win for the White House, congressional negotiators on Monday unveiled their compromise version of the National Defense Authorization Act. The three biggest changes: a new 12-week paid family leave benefit for all federal employees, a 3.1 percent raise for military personnel, and the official creation of the president’s new Space Force. 

  • After days of criticism about his opaque past work for consulting firm McKinsey and Company, Pete Buttigieg released a list of his former McKinsey clients Tuesday. 

  • Former Houston Astros star Gerrit Cole is now a New York Yankee, signing a nine-year, $324 million deal, the biggest ever free agent contract for a pitcher. World Series hero Stephen Strasburg signed a pact to stay with the Washington Nationals for $245 million over seven years.

‘Ladies and Gentlemen of Pennsylvania, the Best Is yet to Come’

“The Inspector General found that the FBI’s spying application contains 17 errors and omissions.”

“I look forward to the Bull Durham report, that’s the one I look forward to.”

“Lisa, I love you so much. Lisa, please. Lisa, please. Lisa, I have never loved anyone like you.”

The more than 10,000 Trump supporters who braved the icy cold rain in Hershey, Pennsylvania didn’t come to the president’s Keep America Great rally for a lesson on the internal machinations of the Department of Justice, but they got one all the same—instinctively knowing which names to boo and which to applaud.

A day after the DoJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz released his much-anticipated report, its contents were clearly on the president’s mind as he addressed some of his biggest fans in the state whose electoral votes in 2016 all but solidified his ensuing four years in Washington. As usual, Trump waded in and out of the truth at a breakneck pace, correctly pointing out the FBI made some serious mistakes in submitting various FISA applications while also directly contradicting Horowitz’s findings by erroneously claiming “the Obama FBI obtained secret warrants to spy on my campaign based on a phony foreign dossier of debunked smears.” More on that later.

But in between bouts of ad-libbing—“A regular president would have been under a table, thumb in the mouth, saying, ‘Take me home, Mommy. This is too tough for me.”—Trump previewed a formidable re-election campaign message: 266,000 jobs added last month, unemployment at a 50-year low, the stock market hitting all-time highs, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (and his deputy) killed in action, more than 150 federal judges appointed to the bench.

Sometimes President Trump “talks before he thinks,” a rally-goer wearing a Santa hat to match his bushy white beard and round belly told The Dispatch. “But his mistakes never hurt the country.” That was about as critical a comment we heard last night; in a development that should shock no one, Trump supporters support Trump.

One attendee made clear there was “nothing” about the Ukraine saga that concerned him, and more than a handful—when asked why they trekked to the Giant Center through the wind and the rain—expressed a desire to show up in person and support Trump in the face of the Democrats’ impeachment “hoax,” “sham,” or “farce.”

An older woman leaned in and confided that she didn’t choose Trump in 2016, but he had since proven to her that he could get things done. This was her first rally.

Asked for their top reason for hopping aboard the Trump train the past three years, voters’ answers varied: investments in the military, unfettered economic growth, the implementation of tariffs, support for the First and Second amendments, judges. Notably absent: rooting out corruption in Ukraine.

Trump edged out Hillary Clinton in Pennsylvania by 0.7 percentage points in 2016. While the campaign is looking to expand the map in 2020, spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany told The Dispatch in an interview, no one is taking Pennsylvania for granted. And the campaign shouldn’t—it’s difficult to see a scenario in which Trump occupies the White House in 2021 without it.

One Pennsylvania voter told us this was the fourth Trump rally he’s attended. He’ll have ample opportunity to boost that number before November.

No One’s Hands Are Clean

On Monday, Horowitz released a 476-page report on "Four FISA applications and Other Aspects of the FBI's Crossfire Hurricane Investigation." As predicted, both sides declared victory immediately and inappropriately. 

On the one hand, the report “did not find documentary or testimonial evidence that political bias or improper motivation influenced the decisions to open the four individual investigations.” It also did not find that “Obama had [Trump's] ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory” as the president claimed. Or that the “dirty Steele dossier paid for by Hillary Clinton” was used to open the investigation in the first place. 

On the other hand—yikes. The report goes into excruciating detail about 17 hard-to-swallow errors and omissions in the Carter Page FISA process, including the glaring problems with using Steele as a source, an FBI agent who intentionally altered an email, and repeated failure to update the court when previous statements turned out to be false. And that’s not even to mention the bizarre tale of DoJ official Bruce Ohr, whom Horowitz dings for concealing his contacts with Steele from his superiors. All that would make for a goat rodeo by itself, but the IG also has some broader concerns: 

“That so many basic and fundamental errors were made by three separate, hand- picked teams on one of the most sensitive FBI investigations that was briefed to the highest levels within the FBI, and that FBI officials would eventually be subjected to close scrutiny, raised significant questions regarding the FBI chain of command's management and supervision of the FISA process.”

Which is perhaps an understatement.

The leadership at the FBI had problems. The majority of the people mentioned in the report were not line FBI agents but senior ranking members of Jim Comey's leadership team. (Although after reading the report in which Comey is rarely featured, you may start to refer to it as Andy McCabe's leadership team.) Again and again, they chose to mislead or simply ignore political leadership at the Department of Justice—during both the Obama and Trump administrations. When asked, these folks told the IG they didn't want their investigations to become "politicized." The IG put it well: 

“We concluded that this decision, made in the absence of concerns of potential wrongdoing or misconduct, and for the purpose of avoiding the appearance that an investigation is "politicized," fundamentally misconstrued who is ultimately responsible and accountable for the Department's work. We agree with the concerns expressed to us by then DAG Yates and then CRM Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell. Department leaders cannot fulfill their management responsibilities, and be held accountable for the Department's actions, if subordinates intentionally withhold information from them in such circumstances.”

And that may be Director Chris Wray's biggest challenge moving forward. In this climate, how do you insulate law enforcement decisions from politics while creating a culture that respects a chain of command that reports up through political appointees? 

How We Were Lied to About Afghanistan

The 24-hour news churn can warp a person’s perception of reality. It frequently feels like there’s far too much news to keep up with—while simultaneously feeling like nothing in the news ever really changes anything.

Sometimes, however, a report comes along that slices through that malaise. The Washington Post’s publication of a whole trove of internal government documents about the war in Afghanistan should be one of those moments. 

The documents reveal, in the words of the Post, “that senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable.” As the war dragged on and on and most of America forgot what we had even been fighting over to begin with, three separate presidential administrations tried and failed to bring the conflict to an acceptable conclusion. 

And as public opinion turned against the war, government spin merchants began to take greater and greater liberties with the facts in order to mislead. In the words of one senior official, Bob Crowley: “Every data point was altered to present the best picture possible. … We became a self-licking ice cream cone.” 

It’s a problem some have seen coming for a long time. Over at Long War Journal, Bill Roggio and Tom Joscelyn have been sounding the alarm for more than a decade that the U.S. is pursuing a myopic Afghanistan policy—focusing on pushing back the Taliban in Afghanistan while ignoring its deep roots in Pakistan and Iran and inextricable ties to al-Qaeda—while soothingly (and falsely) telling America we were on our way to victory. LWJ regularly challenged official reporting from the Pentagon and proclamations from political appointees of both parties — and this report is a thoroughgoing vindication of their efforts.

The documents cast into sharp relief the impossible situation in which the Trump administration finds itself: With lasting victory over the region’s extremist forces little nearer now than it was two decades ago, U.S. deaths numbering in the thousands, and public fatigue with a war that has few public advocates, policymakers have apparently given up on getting anything out of the conflict except a U.S. exit and a prayer the unbroken Taliban will start playing nice unprompted. But the Taliban will not play nice, al Qaeda remains a growing threat in Afghanistan and beyond, and the U.S. withdrawal that now seems inevitable will leave the kind of jihadist safe haven that leads to attacks on the U.S. and our interests.

Three years in, Trump has pursued an uneven strategy of on-again, off-again negotiations with the Taliban, transfixed between two of his own conflicting instincts: a desire to end America’s wars and an eagerness to be the tough guy who takes down America’s terrorist enemies. In order to get out, however, Trump administration officials, like their predecessors, continue to downplay the threat from the Taliban and shrug off its inextricable links to al Qaeda. So the “peace talks” — we’re on-again, apparently — are exercises in self-delusion. Perhaps the terrific reporting from The Washington Post will make it harder for the government to delude the rest of the country, too.

Worth Your Time

  • If the ultimate goal of the quest to create artificial intelligence is to devise a machine that resembles a human mind, then this story is about something opposite: a group of researchers using the AI tools we already have to map out the minds of animals. Jordana Cepelewicz has the details at Quanta Magazine.

  • For a little more background on the USMCA deal, here’s a solid explainer from a little while ago from National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru.

  • A paper that seeks to answer simple question: “Does a One-Size-Fits-All Minimum Wage Cause Financial Stress for Small Businesses?” Short answer: Yes. Longer answer: “Using intertemporal variation in whether a state’s minimum wage is bound by the federal rate and credit-score data for approximately 15.2 million establishments for the period 1989–2013, we find that increases in the federal minimum wage worsen the financial health of small businesses in the affected states.” Access the full paper here.

  • And from Politico’s Daniel Lippmann and Tina Nguyen comes a long look at Rudy Giuliani’s new communications director, 20 year-old Christianne Allen, whose path to this big job is…interesting.

Something Fun

Somebody is putting cowboy hats on pigeons. Whoever you are, we salute you.

Toeing the Company Line

  • Tuesday’s French Press addressed the porn debate roiling the right, and zeroed in on the IG report. And unlike your Morning Dispatchers, David has a law degree, so definitely give his piece a read!

  • If that doesn’t satiate your hunger for IG report-related content, the first episode of Advisory Opinions, David and Sarah’s new podcast, is live here. It’ll have its own feed (and improved sound quality) very soon. Stay tuned for more.

  • The aforementioned Ramesh Ponnuru also joined Jonah on The Remnant this week to prognosticate about impeachment and discuss the state of the Republican party. Give it a listen here.

Let Us Know

Now that we Morning Dispatchers have spent a few days out on the open road, the idea of heading back to turtle up in our once-beloved D.C. cubicles now seems unbearably quaint. Where are some other places we should convince our bosses to send us instead?

  • Hawaii, to get the scoop on Tulsi Gabbard’s early years 

  • Ukraine, to dig up dirt on the people who are digging up dirt on the people who are digging up dirt on Hunter Biden

  • The Great Barrier Reef, to snorkel

  • Las Vegas, to catch the guy putting cowboy hats on pigeons

Reporting by Declan Garvey, Andrew Egger, Sarah Isgur, and Steve Hayes.

Photograph of Donald Trump at a campaign rally on December 10, 2019 in Hershey, Pennsylvania by Mark Makela/Getty Images.