Some cracks emerged last week in the formerly solid wall of Republican support for President Donald Trump. They were small in number -- and dwarfed by the vast pro-Trump majority on the right. Whether they will matter in the long run is another question. But they were surprising nonetheless:
Rep. Matt Gaetz, whom GQ has called the "Trumpiest congressman," was among three Republicans voting for a resolution Thursday to require Trump to gain congressional approval for any more military action against Iran. He joined the Democrats who, as historian Jeremi Suri put it, "are shining a bright light on abuses of presidential military power."
GOP Sen. Mike Lee of Utah called a Wednesday briefing from Trump administration officials after the killing of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani the "worst briefing I've had on a military issue" during his nine years in the Senate and called it "un-American" and "unacceptable." Sen. Rand Paul agreed: "An insult to the Constitution," he told reporters.
And Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who Trump has called one of his "great, great friends in the media," lambasted the President's decision to approve the drone strike that killed Soleimani in Iraq. Dean Obeidallah wrote, "This is the worst possible time for Trump to have cracks in his base."
Trump's alternately warlike and conciliatory approach to Iran is confusing everyone, noted Peter Bergen. "The President's gyrations on the Middle East have been head-spinning."
Trump "has gone back and forth on Iran," approving the Soleimani killing, "while also at the last minute calling off a military operation in June against targets in Iran, and then offering to sit down with the Iranians without preconditions...As a result of these myriad reversals, it's hard for both America's allies and enemies to discern any stable strategy in the greater Middle East."
"This time, the United States stands utterly alone," observed David Andelman. "Perhaps most troubling is the fact that Trump does not seem to be at all concerned about his lack of friends and allies...above all, he does not seem to have an exit strategy or end game in mind."
Frida Ghitis wrote, "The immediate aftermath of the Soleimani killing was an embarrassment of chaotic mixed messages and disorganization. Trump is right that Americans should be grateful this didn't quickly escalate, because by all appearances the administration was ill-prepared." Iran launched a retaliatory missile attack against bases where Americans are stationed but there were no reported casualties.
It's not over, Ghitis warned: "Iran will further retaliate for Soleimani's killing. The retaliation may come from the Quds Force he ran or, more likely, from one of the terrorist groups or militias he helped build across the Middle East."
Rep. Eric Swalwell, a Democrat from California, wrote that Trump "has forfeited the benefit of the doubt by barraging us with lies on matters involving Russia, by throwing our own intelligence community and public servants under the bus when they contradict him and by ignoring our military experts' advice whenever it fails to fit into his personal political goals."
Trump had to invoke the work of intelligence agencies to justify the strike, but these are the same ones that he has attacked as being unreliable arms of the "deep state," noted Samantha Vinograd.
'Startling admission' in air disaster
After several days of denial, Iran admitted that it was responsible for the firing of a missile that brought down a Ukrainian International Airlines passenger plane, killing all 176 on board shortly after takeoff from Imam Khomeini Airport in Iran Wednesday.
As Michael Bociurkiw noted, the disaster bore strong similarities to the 2014 downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 which crashed in Ukraine after it was hit by Russian-made missiles, killing 298 people.
The difference this time: "Iranian authorities have done something the Russian government has never mustered the courage to do...More than five years later, the Kremlin has yet to acknowledge any responsibility for the tragic downing of the flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur." He said "Iran's startling admission" likely came because "authorities in Tehran felt they could no longer maintain theories of a technical failure and other lines of deniability in the face of overwhelming evidence gathered by western intelligence agencies."
Pelosi to McConnell: 'Get ready'
Trump was said to be angry at the Democrats' passage of the War Powers resolution, but he can afford to laugh off the few Republican voices criticizing him as long as the Senate's GOP majority sticks together when Speaker Nancy Pelosi sends over the two articles of impeachment.
Democrats "failed to convince a single Republican in the House that impeachment was necessary," wrote Scott Jennings. Former Trump national security adviser John Bolton, who now says he would heed a Senate subpoena, should have been called as a witness by the House, in Jennings' view. "This could not have gone more poorly if the Democrats had tried...Better to let the people decide Trump's fate in November than allow the Washington partisans to try in January."
Lawyers Michael Zeldin and Robert Ray, both former independent counsels, tangled over whether the Senate should call witnesses, including Bolton. "If the Senate does not call Bolton and the other witnesses with firsthand knowledge of the President's actions, it would be facilitating a coverup, and this is how history will record it," wrote Zeldin.
Ray's reply: "Only when there is clear and unmistakable evidence of impeachable crimes also constituting an abuse of the public trust will there ever be the requisite bipartisan support to remove a president from office. Anything short of that is contrary to the best interests of the country and can await the next election. In short, you don't need witnesses and further documents in order to figure that one out."
For more on Trump, Iran and impeachment:
Michael D'Antonio: The price of Trumpian chaos
Elie Honig: John Bolton's statement should scare Trump
Michael Ware: The history behind the US-Iran conflict
Fareed Zakaria: President Trump's Michael Corleone moment in the Middle East
Seema Golestaneh: Why Trump's threat is unthinkable
Michael Oren: Iran must be confronted
Aaron David Miller: Trump and Khamenei want the same thing
A shocking new low
Rep. Doug Collins wasn't alone in suggesting that Democrats had sympathy for Soleimani, but his rhetoric was particularly extreme. Preet Bharara noted that Collins said Democrats "are in love with terrorists. We see that they mourn Soleimani more than they mourn our Gold Star families."
Bharara wrote in an open letter to Collins on Thursday: "I realize that you are a politician and that hyperbolic, hyperpartisan claptrap is the unfortunate fashion of the day. But even allowing for the new normal of nastiness in political rhetoric, your casual slur of countless good Americans hits a new bottom. Americans can, in good faith, differ about the legality or efficacy of killing Soleimani. That doesn't make them unpatriotic or lovers of terrorists. It is hostility to differences of opinion that is un-American."
On Friday, Collins apologized.
But also joining in the chorus of Republicans claiming Democrats had mourned the passing of Soleimani was former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley. The truth, wrote Jill Filipovic: "Not a single Democratic leader, candidate or other politician, 'mourned' Soleimani or expressed sadness over the man's death. To the contrary: They nearly to a one noted that he was a vicious actor, a man with the blood of thousands on his hands."
Haley "may well be angling to replace Mike Pence as Vice President, as some have suggested. She may just be seeking continued relevance in a Republican Party that increasingly hews to the chaos, anger and contempt of Trumpism...she has now firmly and permanently ceded any claim she ever had to high ground," Filipovic said.
Last debate before Iowa
With three weeks to go before the Democratic presidential primary voting finally begins in Iowa, six candidates will take to the stage Tuesday in a debate sponsored by CNN and The Des Moines Register, the last DNC sanctioned debate before the caucus. Among them is Sen. Amy Klobuchar who has been focusing on Iowa and who some proclaimed the winner of the last debate.
David Perry, who's based in Klobuchar's home state, wrote that she "doesn't just win elections in Minnesota -- she crushes them. Even as political control in Minnesota has swung back and forth between Republicans and Democrats ... Klobuchar won by over 20 points in 2006, an incredible 35 points in 2012, and 24 points in 2018. She runs far ahead of her Democratic comrades on the statewide ticket, clearly attracting numerous Republican-leaning voters comfortable with splitting their ticket in her favor. She's made that success her calling card in the 2020 presidential primary" but still isn't in the top rank of Democrats in the primary polls.
To gain more traction, Klobuchar needs to make her case to progressive voters, Perry said. "I'd like to know whether there's a positive centrist vision for America beyond the premise that it will be easier to achieve."
When Iowans vote in the February 3 caucus, wrote Julian Zelizer, "a surprise victory or a second-place finish from anyone other than Joe Biden — who still leads the national polls among Democrats — will be seen as a game-changing moment that will generate extensive media coverage and attract a significant fundraising boost."
300 days and counting
It's been more than 300 days since the White House had a regular press briefing, which was a standard feature in prior administrations.
Having such briefings would help the administration and the American people immeasurably, particularly in a time of crisis, wrote a group of 13 former press secretaries, foreign service and military officials, from Republican as well as Democratic administrations. "Americans want to know the latest developments and seek the truth. On social media, wild rumors can fly, and our adversaries can manipulate disinformation to their advantage. This is now well documented," they wrote.
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The Queen was livid
Last February, English critic Kate Maltby wrote for CNN Opinion about the harsh criticism Meghan Markle had been receiving in the UK press. Maltby attributed it in part to the "absurd and anachronistic" royal system. "If Meghan and Harry want to be truly radical, perhaps they should walk away completely."
This week, they started down that path, by announcing a plan to step away from some royal duties and live part of the year in North America.
In a new piece, Maltby applauded the move but said it doesn't go far enough: "It's still hard for many British progressives to rally round Harry as a champion of a new liberal monarchy. Especially when he and Meghan seem determined to remain in the royal family -- but entirely on their own terms. Brits who struggle to pay the rent will have laughed outright to see them talk about working toward 'financial independence,' given the significant inheritance he received from his aristocratic mother, Princess Diana, and great-grandmother the Queen Mother. The 'Duchy of Cornwall,' from which comes much of the income Prince Charles donates to his sons, is an old feudal fiefdom."
Incidentally, the announcement by Harry and Meghan seems to have blindsided the Queen and Prince Charles, Harry's father. As Maltby noted, "The BBC reported that Buckingham Palace is 'disappointed' -- Britspeak for "the Queen is livid."
Ever since the couple announced their engagement, wrote Peggy Drexler, the UK tabloid media "has blasted and belittled her, hardly ever forgetting to identify her as a divorced American actress with a black mother.
"Race, in fact, has been a huge factor," Drexler noted. "One of the earliest pieces, which ran in the Daily Mail, declared, 'Harry's girl is (almost) straight outta Compton' and painted her hometown as 'plagued by crime and riddled with street gangs.' It 'couldn't be more different to London's leafy Kensington,' the piece read...
"They ran her out of town and now they're mad she's leaving."