The State Department hasn’t posted a link to its daily press briefing yet, but I’ll paste the transcribed text at the bottom of this post so you can get a sense of how much the administration is squirming over this issue. The exchange between State spokesperson Mark Toner and one of the reporters is so incredibly awkward that the AP can’t even begin to capture it in the following write up:
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Monday that [U.S. Ambassador to Belgium Howard] Gutman would remain in his post.
Toner said Gutman spoke as ambassador, yet expressed his own views. He declined to say if the administration disagreed with those views.
The White House on Saturday condemned anti-Semitism in all forms. Gutman did as well.
Jewish groups expressed outrage. Some Republican presidential candidates have demanded Gutman’s resignation.
Why is Obama sticking by Gutman?
Beyond Gutman’s fundraising in 2008, Benny Avni writes that Gutman also defended Obama during the Rev. Wright controversy. Maybe the administration expects this debacle to blow over quickly. But in the meantime, they’re putting themselves in a very awkward position.
In the press briefing below, Toner tries to claim that Gutman’s remarks were misinterpreted, but won’t say whether the administration agrees with the idea that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is responsible for anti-Semitism. He also tried to argue that Gutman wasn’t speaking for the administration, while simultaneously acknowledging that the ambassador is always representing the United States in public forums.
The big question that still remains is whether Gutman’s speech was approved by anyone in the administration. Toner said that he was “not aware that [Gutman’s] remarks were cleared back here in Washington.” But if the administration can’t even say that it doesn’t agree with Gutman’s statement, why should we assume that it would have objected to the speech in the first place?
Full briefing below:
Q: (Off mic.)
MR. TONER: Sorry. I’m really sorry to — it’s a great way to go
into a briefing — remind Matt that his team lost.
Q: (Off mic.)
MR. TONER: Yeah. Well, the Eagles didn’t exactly shroud
themselves in glory.
Welcome, everyone, to the State Department. Happy Monday. I
hope you all had a good weekend.
I do want to — you probably just saw we did release a few
minutes ago — and just mention that Special Representative for North
Korea Policy Glyn Davies, who is now back in Washington but getting
ready now to travel to the Republic of Korea, Japan and China from
December 6th through the 15th — the media note detailed some of his
meetings, but obviously he’s there to — the purpose of his trip, his
first to the region as the special representative, is to exchange
views on Korean Peninsula issues.
With that, I’ll take your questions. Matt, welcome back.
Q: Thank you. I’ve got a bunch — well, a few, at least, on
MR. TONER: OK.
Q: I’ll start with Ambassador Gutman’s speech from last week.
Does the — did the administration sign off on this, or was it vetted
by anyone in EUR or NEA? And does the administration agree with the
sentiments that he expressed in his speech?
MR. TONER: I think you saw — actually, let me start again. I’m
not aware that his remarks were cleared back here in Washington. He
made very clear in a subsequent statement that they were his thoughts
or his remarks. He did condemn — he — and was very vocal about
condemning anti-Semitism in all its forms, and I believe he expressed
regret that his words might have been taken out of context.
Q: Do you — do you think that they were taken out of context?
MR. TONER: I’m sorry. In —
Q: Does the administration agree with the content of the — of
Ambassador Gutman’s speech?
MR. TONER: I think have to say — and you’ve seen, obviously,
the White House —
Q: Well, no, actually I had to get those — they were apparently
being only sent to select people. I wasn’t selected, maybe because I
was gone, but —
MR. TONER: You’re always selected.
Q: — I have — I have seen them, however. I’m — but they
don’t answer the question about whether the administration agrees with
what Ambassador Gutman said in his speech.
MR. TONER: And the administration and the State Department says
that we condemn anti-Semitism in all its forms.
Q: That’s great, Mark. I’m glad that you do. And I’m sure
everyone is glad that you do. But do you agree with the content of
Ambassador Gutman’s speech?
MR. TONER: We —
Q: I don’t know — it’s a pretty easy question. Yes or no?
MR. TONER: It is a — it is — it is — it was his remarks. It
was his opinion —
Q: So he wasn’t speaking on — the ambassador to Belgium, he was
not speaking —
MR. TONER: He was not speaking on behalf — I think he’s said as
much. He said it was his remarks and he was speaking on his own —
Q: No, he didn’t. He did not say that. He — but he was not
speaking on behalf of the U.S. government?
MR. TONER: I don’t believe so.
Q: So the — OK, the ambassador to Belgium shows up at a
conference in Europe, in Belgium, and he is not speaking on behalf of
the U.S. government. Is that correct?
MR. TONER: The ambassador was expressing his views on an issue.
Q: They’re not the view — so these —
MR. TONER: He subsequently — he subsequently issued a statement
clarifying that he was — and expressing regret if his remarks were
taken out of context. He then said that he does condemn anti-Semitism
in all its forms and in fact pointed to his own family history as a —
as a testament to that.
Q: So are you — well, I understand that. But you’re saying
that he was speaking as a private citizen, not as the U.S. ambassador?
MR. TONER: Well, of course, when — any time an ambassador
speaks, he is representing the United States.
Q: So the views that he expressed in his speech do not represent
the views of the administration?
MR. TONER: Matt, I made it very clear —
Q: Mark, I understand that you condemn anti-Semitism in all its
forms. I understand that, OK? I’m asking you if you agree with the
content of his speech, which he gave as the U.S. ambassador to
MR. TONER: And I would just say that he was — he was sharing
his views on an issue. Our commitment to Israel’s security is
ironclad. The United States — or Israel has no greater friend or
ally than the United States. And we condemn anti-Semitism in all its
Q: OK, that’s fine. But I don’t — I’m not hearing in there —
unless you’re going to tell me right out he was speaking as a private
citizen not as the ambassador. Is that — that’s what you’re
MR. TONER: What’s that — he — that — I’m sorry, could you
repeat your question again?
Q: That his comments were delivered as a — as a private
citizen, not as a representative of the U.S. government?
MR. TONER: Again — (chuckles) — we’ve been very clear that we
condemn anti-Semitism in all its forms regardless of, you know, how
call it or how you characterize it.
Q: Do you — do you think that — do you — OK, so you do not
agree, then, with the — with the — with the contents of the
MR. TONER: I think I’ll just stop there.
Q: Well — (chuckles) — (inaudible) — this guy, who is the —
MR. TONER: I think I just said we condemn anti-Semitism in all
of its forms.
Q: OK, so you don’t draw a distinction between criticism of
MR. TONER: No.
Q: — and —
MR. TONER: No, we don’t — we don’t draw any — we don’t —
Q: All criticism of Israel — all criticism of Israel is anti-
Semitism? (Laughter.) Is that what you’re saying?
MR. TONER: Look, I will leave it to the ambassador to Belgium to
clarify what he meant by his remarks —
Q: Does the — does the — does the —
MR. TONER: — to this gathering. I can only speak on behalf of
this administration, and that is that we condemn anti-Semitism in all
Q: Does the administration think that Israel is above reproach,
in other words, that Israel should not — should not be criticized for
MR. TONER: Speaking largely about the issue that was on the
table, which is Middle East peace and the importance of it and,
frankly, the stability that it brings to the region, we’ve been very
clear that, you know, the best way to a lasting peace is through the
negotiating table. That remains our focus. We want to get both sides
back into direct negotiations.
Q: Surely, though, the administration has, with the specific
example of — I’ll use settlements here, you have been —
MR. TONER: Absolutely.
Q: The administration has been critical of the Israeli
government, correct? Yes?
MR. TONER: If we’re talking now about efforts to get both sides
back to the negotiating table, we have been very clear when either of
the parties, we believe, does actions or takes actions that are not
constructive to that process.
Q: This administration has been critical of the government of
Israel before, correct?
MR. TONER: Of course.
Q: Yes. Do you — is that criticism anti-Semitic?
MR. TONER: Of course not.
Q: So all criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitism?
MR. TONER: Again, I don’t want to parse this out. I just simply
want to say —
Q: I know you don’t want to, because you’re in a very difficult
MR. TONER: — we condemn — we condemn anti-Semitism in all of
its forms, OK?
Q: You’re saying, though, that you accept a distinction between
criticism of Israel and — criticism of the government of — the
policies of the government of Israel and anti-Semitism. You draw a
distinction between the two things, correct?
MR. TONER: I’d just say that this administration has
consistently stood up against anti-Semitism and efforts to
delegitimize Israel and will continue to do so.
Q: Does the administration believe that you can be critical of
Israel without being anti-Semitic?
MR. TONER: I think that when it comes to trying to keep the
parties focused on the peace process and in citing behavior that is
not constructive to that process, we are certainly able to do that and
have done so in the past.
Q: Does the administration believe that you can be — that one
can be critical of the policies of the government of Israel without
being anti-Semitic? Yes or no?
MR. TONER: Well, again, I think I just answered the question,
that we have been critical —
Q: OK, so you’re saying that there — you do draw a distinction
between criticism — between criticism of the government of Israel, of
policies of the government of Israel, and — in other words, not all
criticism of — when you come out and you say, we think that more
settlements are a bad idea, that doesn’t mean the administration is
MR. TONER: Of course. Of course. Of course.
Q: OK. So in his speech, Ambassador Gutman draws a distinction
between the classic anti-Semitism and some kind of new form of hatred
toward Jews, which is based — what he said, based on the policies of
the government of Israel.
Do you — do you — it sounds as though you accept that there is a
distinction between the — between the two.
MR. TONER: What Ambassador Gutman was — I believe what he was
trying to convey is that there are different forms of anti-Semitism.
We condemn them in all their forms.
Q: All right.
I’ve got another on Israel, but it’s not on this subject.
Q: Can I just follow up briefly on that? Some Republicans have
called for the administration to fire Ambassador Gutman. Is there —
does the administration have a response to that, have a position on —
MR. TONER: We have full confidence in him.
State Department Defense of Gutman Adds to Confusion
Must-Reads from Magazine
Expect the impossible.
If the 2016 presidential election cycle demonstrated anything, it was that Republicans suffer from a crippling lack of imagination. That ordeal should have established that the unprecedented is not impossible. Even now, Republicans seem as though they are trying to convince themselves that their eyes are lying to them, but they are not. The tempo of the investigation into President Trump is accelerating, and a nightmare scenario is eminently imaginable. Only congressional Republicans can avert disaster, and only then by being clear about the actions they are prepared to take if Trump instigates a crisis of constitutional legitimacy.
The events of the last 36 hours unrolled like a cascade. Late Wednesday, the New York Times published an interview in which Trump delivered a stinging rebuke for Attorney General Jeff Sessions, scolding him for recusing himself from the investigation into the campaign’s ties to Russian operatives. In that interview, Trump appeared to warn special counselor Robert Mueller not to dig too deeply into his personal finances, or else.
Hours later, Bloomberg News revealed that Mueller’s probe was investigating Trump’s business transactions and tax records—a leak surely made in response to Trump’s arm-twisting. More leaks from the investigation confirmed that former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort was being investigated for involvement in a money-laundering scheme, a revelation made more discomfiting by the discovery that he owed pro-Russian interests $17 million before joining the Trump campaign.
With the noose tightening, the lead attorney on Trump’s personal defense team, Marc Kasowitz, and the legal team’s spokesperson, Mark Corallo, resigned. The Washington Post reported that “Trump has asked his advisers about his power to pardon aides, family members and even himself in connection with the probe.” Trump’s spokespeople insist the president has no intention of pursuing the dismissal of the special counsel investigating his campaign, but his every action indicates that this is a lie.
Prominent Republicans reacted to all this incredulously. “There is no possible way anybody at the White House could be seriously thinking about firing Mueller,” Sen. Bob Corker insisted. “We all know the president,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch. “He makes some of these comments that he really doesn’t mean.” Sen. Susan Collins was willing to go a bit farther: “It would be catastrophic if the President were to fire the special counsel.”
Off the record, however, Republican lawmakers are far less circumspect in relaying their fears about what the president is capable of doing to the republic. “Any thought of firing the special counsel is chilling. It’s chilling,” an unnamed GOP senator told CNN. “One gets the impression that the President doesn’t understand or he willfully disregards the fact that the attorney general and law enforcement in general—they are not his personal lawyers to defend and protect him,” another added.
These tepid comments for the record, with courage reserved only upon condition of anonymity, expose how Republicans in Congress have again failed to meet the measure of the moment. These are dangerous days, and it is incumbent upon Donald Trump’s party in Congress to deter the executive branch from overstepping its authority. The only way to do that is to be clear about what the consequences for that kind of transgression will be.
The Congressional Research Service defines how the president could execute a nuclear option against the independent counsel’s office. The Attorney General has recused himself from campaign-related investigations, so Trump would have to insist Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein remove Mueller. If Rosenstein declined, his resignation would likely be on offer, and his acting replacement (Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand) would have to field the same request. At this point, the comparisons between the Trump White House’s behavior and that of the Nixon administration ahead of the 1973 “Saturday Night Massacre” are no longer hyperbolic.
In lieu of any ability to contain or control the special counsel’s office, Trump’s defenders have mounted a public relations campaign designed to undermine its authority and discredit its members. That will rally Trump’s diehard supporters, but the president remains unsatisfied. National Review’s Rich Lowry speculated convincingly that Trump would have little choice but to move against Mueller. Sooner rather than later, the conditions the president said would force his hand—a probe of Trump’s personal finances—will be met. Lowry observed that Trump seems to believe his tax records and business practices should be off limits and his experience has taught him “that fortune favors the recklessly bold.”
Republicans in Congress must stop comforting themselves with the notion that the worst cannot happen. They have to summon the courage to state publicly what they so freely tell reporters on background. If they are so concerned that the norms and traditions that have preserved the rule of law in this republic for 240 years are in jeopardy, they must say so. And they must say what the consequences will be for Trump, his associates, and his family if he goes too far. Republicans in office are disinclined to pursue a course of action against Trump that might jeopardize their standing with the voters who love him. None of that matters. Prioritizing their parochial careerist considerations over the best interests of their party and their country is how they got themselves into this mess.
Republicans may dislike the prospect, but it’s fast becoming time for them to start saying the “I” word if only to save the president from his most reckless impulses. The longer they tell themselves that the unthinkable is impossible, the more likely it becomes.
Are the warplane's secrets safe?
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is the newest generation air platform for the U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marines. Lockheed-Martin, which builds the F-35, describes it as “a 5th Generation fighter, combining advanced stealth with fighter speed and agility, fully fused sensor information, network-enabled operations and advanced sustainment.” For both diplomatic reasons and to encourage sales, Lockheed-Martin subcontracted the production of many F-35 components to factories abroad. Many program partners—Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, Denmark, for example—are consistent U.S. allies.
Turkey, however, is also part of the nine-nation consortium producing the plane, which gives Turkey access to the F-35’s technology. “As a program partner, Turkish industries are eligible to become suppliers to the global F-35 fleet for the life of the program. In total, F-35 industrial opportunities for Turkish companies are expected to reach $12 billion,” the warplane’s website explained. “Turkey plans to purchase 100 of the F-35A Conventional Takeoff and Landing variant. Its unsurpassed technological systems and unique stealth capabilities ensure that the F-35 will be the future of Turkish national security for decades to come.”
But is the F-35 safe with Turkey? In recent years, the Turkish government has leaked highly-classified information to America’s adversaries in fits of diplomatic pique. Back in 2013, for example, Turkey leaked to the Iranians the identities of Israeli spies in Iran. Danny Yatom, former head of the Mossad, told USA Today that the incident would damage U.S. intelligence efforts, “because we will be much more reluctant to work via Turkey because they will fear information is leaking to Iran… We feel information achieved [by Israel] through Turkey went not only to Israel but also to the United States.”
On July 19, the Pentagon criticized Turkey’s state-controlled news agency for exposing ten covert U.S. bases in Syria in a way that can enable both the Islamic State and Iranian-backed forces to target Americans. Bloomberg reported that the leak also detailed aid routes and equipment stored at each base.
Both these incidents raise serious questions about whether Turkey can be trusted with the F-35, especially given Turkey’s growing military and diplomatic ties to Russia, and the wayward NATO state’s recent cooperation with China as well. The United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defense is rightly concerned about the security implications of a plan to service its F-35s in Turkey, but such concern should only be the tip of the iceberg.
Should Turkey even receive F-35s and, to the extent the program relies on Turkish factories, is it time to stand up quickly a Plan B? To do otherwise might squander the billions of dollars already spent on the program, risk increasing President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ability to blackmail the West, and potentially land America’s latest military technology on Kremlin desks.
Too many martyrs make a movement.
If the GOP is to be converted into a vehicle for politicians who evince Donald Trump’s brand of pragmatic center-right populism, Trump will have to demonstrate his brand of politics can deliver victories for people other than himself. Presidential pen strokes help to achieve that, as do judicial appointments. Nothing is so permanent, though, as sweeping legislative change. On that score, the newly Trumpian Republican Party is coming up short. If the passive process of transformational legislative success fails to compel anti-Trump holdouts in the GOP to give up the ghost, there is always arm-twisting. It seems the Republican National Committee is happy to play enforcer.
The RNC’s nascent effort to stifle anti-Trump apostasy by making examples of high-profile heretics has claimed its first victim: New Jersey’s Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno. The Republican is running to replace the nation’s least popular governor, Chris Christie, and the effort has been a struggle. Trailing badly in the polls and facing the headwinds associated with trying to succeed an unpopular outgoing GOP governor in a blue state, Guadagno needs all the help she can get. That help won’t be coming from the RNC. According to NJ Advance Media, the committee’s objection to helping Guadagno isn’t the imprudence of throwing good money after bad. It’s that she was mean to President Trump in 2016, and she must be punished.
“[The president] is unhappy with anyone who neglected him in his hour of need,” said a source billed as an RNC insider. The specific complaint arises from an October 8 tweet from the lieutenant governor said that “no apology can excuse” Trump’s “reprehensible” conduct on the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape. “Christie was not as stalwart as some people in the party, but at least he didn’t go against him the way she did,” the insider added.
This source’s version of events was supported by former two-term New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman. “She went down there, and the (Republican National) Committee was reluctant to back the campaign in the way one would have expected,” she said. “The implication was, ‘Well you were not a Trump supporter in the primary, and so don’t expect much money.'”
This is almost certainly a pretext. Republicans are facing stiff competition and an unfavorable political environment in November’s gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey. In 2017-2018, 27 GOP-held seats are up for grabs, nine of which are in some jeopardy of falling to Democrats. Republicans are going to have to husband their resources and triage their officeholders. That’s a forgivable, if demoralizing, condition. Declaring Guadagno to have offended the leader and to be cut off from the font of Republican goodwill is not only unjustifiable, it’s terribly foolish.
If Republican women are to be punished for saying that Trump’s comments about sexually assaulting unsuspecting females were unacceptable, there are going to be a lot fewer Republican women. Moreover, the RNC has invited the perception that there is a double standard at play here. A slew of Republicans called on Trump to drop out of the race after that tape, but the RNC is unlikely to withhold support for Senators Rob Portman or John Thune when they need it. Among those calling on Trump to drop out was his own chief of staff, Reince Priebus—a fact the president reportedly won’t let Priebus forget.
Cults of personality can be bullied into existence, but they rarely outlast the personality around whom they form unless that personality can claim some lasting achievements. In lieu of any compelling rationale, the effort to remake the GOP in Trump’s image by force will only create dissidents. The ideological conservatives who once dominated the Republican Party are unlikely to make peace with the ascendant populist faction at gunpoint. And the RNC is not solely to blame for this boneheaded move. Even if the notion that Guadagno is being punished for disloyalty is a pretense, it is a response to a clear set of incentives promoted by this White House.
Maybe the most intriguing question of the present political age is whether or not conservatives in the GOP will come to terms with a man they once saw as a usurper. A heavy hand will only catalyze resistance, and Trump needs his own party as much or more than they need him. Guadagno’s gubernatorial bid is on no firmer ground today than it was yesterday, but the Republican candidate’s allies can now legitimately claim persecution at the hands of personality cultists. Too many martyrs make a movement. The White House and the Republican National Committee should tread lightly.
Podcast: Conservatism in shackles while O.J. goes free?
On the second of this week’s podcasts, I ask Abe Greenwald and Noah Rothman whether the health-care debacle this week is simply a reflection of the same pressures on the conservative coalition Donald Trump saw and conquered by running for president last year—and what it will mean for him and them that he has provided no rallying point for Republican politicians. And then we discuss OJ Simpson. Give a listen.
Don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast on iTunes.
Hyperbole yields cynicism, not the other way around.
Newly-elected French President Emmanuel Macron surprised almost everyone when he invited President Donald Trump to celebrate Bastille Day with him in Paris, especially after the two leaders’ awkward first meeting in Brussels in May. After all, between now and then, Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris Climate Change Agreement, and Macron has become perhaps the most vocal critic of Trump among European leaders.
In hindsight, Macron’s reason for embracing Trump might have been to get the president to reverse course on the Paris agreement. From the Associated Press:
French President Emmanuel Macron says his glamorous Paris charm offensive on Donald Trump was carefully calculated — and may have changed the U.S. president’s mind about climate change…. On their main point of contention — Trump’s withdrawal from the landmark Paris climate agreement — Macron is quoted as saying that “Donald Trump listened to me. He understood the reason for my position, notably the link between climate change and terrorism.”
According to Macron, climate change causes droughts and migration, which exacerbates crises as populations fight over shrinking resources. If Macron really believes that, France and Europe are in for some tough times.
First, droughts are a frequent, cyclical occurrence in the Middle East, the Sahel, and the Horn of Africa. The difference between drought and famine is the former is a natural occurrence and the latter is man-made, usually caused by poor governance. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the Horn of Africa, where the same drought might kill a few dozens of Ethiopians but wipe out tens of thousands of Somalis.
Second, the common factor in the wars raging in the Middle East today is neither climate change nor extreme weather, but brutal dictatorship, radical ideologies, and the militias supported by the Islamic Republic of Iran. Yemen could be a breadbasket. Its terraced fields rising up thousands of feet in the mountains grow almost every fruit imaginable. Yemen also catches the tail end of the monsoon. If Yemenis planted exportable crops like coffee rather than the mild drug qat, which does not bring in hard currency, they might be fairly prosperous.
It is not climate change that denied the Syrian public basic freedoms and liberty for decades, nor was it climate change that dropped barrel bombs on civilian neighborhoods, tortured and killed 13-year-old Hamza Ali al-Khateeb, or used chemical weapons. For that matter, when it comes to radicalization, the problem is Syria was less climate and more decades of Saudi-and Qatari-funded indoctrination and Turkish assistance to foreign fighters.
Regardless of all this, another obvious factor nullifies Macron’s thesis: When drought occurs in regions outside the Middle East, the result is seldom suicide bombing.
Terrorism does not have a one-size-fits-all explanation but, generally speaking, when it comes to Islamist terrorism, ideology plays a key role. Most terrorists are educated, middle class, and relatively privileged. Islamic State caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, for example, has a Ph.D. Many of the 9/11 hijackers were educated. In the Gaza Strip, Hamas recruits inside schools. Simply put, there is no linkage between climate change and terrorism.
Not only would Trump be foolish to buy Macron’s argument, but environmentalists who believe climate change puts the Earth in immediate peril should be outraged. It is hyperbole. Moreover, it is the casual invocation of climate change as a catch-all cause for every other issue that breeds the cynicism that leads so many to become so dismissive of everything climate activists say. Macron may look down up Trump as an ignorant bore, but Macron’s own logic suggests he is also living in a world where facts and reality don’t matter.