Trump, Iran, and the links to impeachment

This weekend, the killing, in a US military strike, of Qassem Suleimani, Iran’s hugely influential top security and intelligence official, reverberated through the media and around the world—accelerating the sporadic Trump-era tit for tat with Iran, which is now something much more immediate and alarming. Iran continued to threaten revenge for Suleimani’s killing, and said it would suspend the remaining restrictions imposed upon it by its 2015 nuclear deal with Western powers. In Iraq, where Suleimani was traveling when he was killed, lawmakers passed a (symbolic, for now) resolution to expel foreign troops. Closer to home, people of Iranian descent—including Americans—reported being detained for long periods at the border between the US and Canada, where they were asked about their political views. (According to the New York Times, one family said it was told, by a border official, that “this is a bad time to be an Iranian.”) And Trump spat out a string of dire tweets. In one, he threatened to strike 52 Iranian sites, including some “important to Iran & the Iranian culture”; in another, he cast his tweets (“These Media Posts”) as official notification to Congress that should Iran hit back at the US, the US will hit back harder. The latter missive had journalists baffled; Maggie Haberman, of the Times, simply tweeted, “??”. Sometimes, there are no words.

Trump and his administration have insisted that they killed Suleimani to avert an “imminent” attack, but they’ve yet to provide specific evidence of this to the public, the press, or, it would seem, Congress. The claim seems increasingly shaky. As early as Friday, a Pentagon source told the Times that Suleimani offered no new threat; on Saturday, Rukmini Callimachi, who covers terrorism and the Middle East for the paper, said officials told her that the evidence for an immininent attack was “razor thin.” Also Saturday, the Washington Post reported that Trump killed Suleimani because “negative coverage” of his decision, last year, to abort a planned strike against Iran had made him “look weak.” Sharp, reported skepticism of the official line—too often lacking in coverage of the US and Iran—was welcome. But it was unevenly distributed. On Friday—as the Times reported the no new threat claim a few paragraphs into a news piece, the top of its homepage blared Trump’s claim that he had acted “to stop a war.” Footage of Trump saying those words rolled at the top of TV news shows, without anchors adding adequate context. Stenography is never good journalism. When it comes to war, it’s unforgivable, and that’s before we get started on this administration.

Related: The killing of Qassem Suleimani and the road to war with Iran

Collectively, we did seem more skeptical of Trump’s rationale by the end of the weekend than we had been at the beginning. Yesterday, Mike Pompeo—the secretary of State who, the Post reports, was key in getting Trump to approve the Suleimani strike—toured all five of the Sunday shows, reshuffling his talking points as he went. (At times, he sounded bored.) Unlike Trump and other right-wing firebrands, Pompeo is a flattering, cajoling interviewee—“Chuck, you’ve been at this a long time; the American people are smart, too”—but his accounts had gaping holes, and his interlocutors picked up on many of them. On CNN, Jake Tapper pressed Pompeo repeatedly on Trump’s threat to hit cultural sites; on ABC, George Stephanopoulos noted that doing so would amount to a war crime. Still, some progressives, in particular, felt interviewers were too deferential to Pompeo’s responses. In light of recent events and past history, anything less than asking, over and over again, but where is the evidence? does feel inadequate.

One skeptical narrative that emerged over the weekend, including on the Sunday shows, was the “wag the dog” theory—that Trump killed Suleimani to distract from his impeachment. The theory isn’t baseless. (Exhibit A: Trump’s predictions, in 2011 and 2012, that Barack Obama would hit Iran for electoral benefit.) And regardless of Trump’s intentions, the strike did have the effect of deflecting our attention from impeachment, or at least diluting it.

But there are reasons to doubt the theory, too. (Is Trump really that strategic?) And, more importantly, we needn’t rely on speculation to justify keeping impeachment in the picture—it is, in fact, a key part of the Iran story, and it’s crucial that we hold our focus on both simultaneously. Both threads are about foreign policy, and Trump’s fitness to hold high office in that context. And they’re both concerned with Trump’s relentless war on the truth. Impeachment is the most urgent reminder we’ve yet faced that this administration’s foreign policy must not be taken at face value.

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On Friday night, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes did a good job of situating the killing of Suleimani in this context. His first words of his show—after playing Trump’s “stop a war” remark—were “Massive contradictions from the White House”; later, Hayes mentioned impeachment, and reminded his viewers that “there is absolutely no reason for anyone in the US to credit anything the president or his administration says about matters of life and death and war and peace until it is demonstrably verified. Full stop.” Not all journalists have the license to talk like Hayes, a liberal host on a liberal network. But we should all keep his advice front of mind.

Below, more on Trump, Iran, and impeachment:

  • Nothing to hide?: Arrangements for Trump’s Senate trial remain at an impasse; nonetheless, there’s plenty of news on the impeachment front. Last week, Kate Brannen of Just Security, a site run out of NYU’s law school, reported previously redacted details from correspondence pertaining to Trump’s Ukraine aid freeze; “What is clear,” Brannen wrote, “is that it all came down to the president and what he wanted; no one else appears to have supported his position.” Then, on Friday, the White House refused to hand internal emails to the Times, despite a court having ordered it to produce them.
  • “War and Tweets”: On Friday, Bridget Read wrote for New York’s The Cut about Twitter and the way we discuss war. “The constant churn of response and reaction, the unrelenting slurry of information, did not bring the death of Soleimani, the possibility of war, the millions of people in danger in the Middle East, their homes closer. It only rendered those things more unreal,” Read wrote. “If cable TV in 2003 made Iraq look like a place where no one lived, Twitter made it seem like it wasn’t even really there.”
  • Social media warriors: Suleimani was famous in the Middle East, “but many Americans first heard of the general in 2018, when he started arguing with Trump via memes on Instagram,” Avi Selk writes for the Post. Suleimani posted memes in which he had been photoshopped onto posters for Olympus Has Fallen (a movie about an attack on the White House) and Game of Thrones—the latter in direct mimicry of Trump.
  • Assassins screed: On Saturday, the Associated Press, whose Stylebook is gospel for many US newsrooms, explained that it has been reluctant to describe Suleimani’s killing as as assassination “both because it would require that the news service decide that the act was a murder, and because the term is politically freighted.” Several observers quibbled with that logic.
  • Boosters gonna boost?: The right-wing mediasphere has mostly backed Trump’s decision to strike Suleimani, but not everyone has been supportive. On Friday night, Tucker Carlson criticized the escalation—“Why are we continuing to ignore the decline of our own country in favor of jumping into another quagmire from which there is no obvious exit?”—though he blamed “chest-beating” advisers more than Trump himself. CNN’s Oliver Darcy reckons Drudge is opposed to war, too. (As of this morning, he seems more invested in Ricky Gervais than anything else.)
  • Sliding into the Ayatollah’s DMs: The filmmaker Michael Moore sent a direct message to Iran’s Supreme Leader, asking him to refrain from retaliatory violence and instead “let me & millions of Americans fix this peacefully.” He seems to be expecting a reply.

Other notable stories:

  • Following the 2016 election, CJR and The Guardian co-published a lengthy oral history of the media’s campaign coverage and its failures. This morning, we’re out with a follow-up, on the mistakes we risk repeating in 2020, and how we might avoid them. The package—by CJR’s Akintunde Ahmad, Lauren Harris, and Savannah Jacobson, and The Guardian’s Adam Gabbatt, Ed Pilkington, and Jim Waterson—features interviews with reporters and press critics including the Post’s Margaret Sullivan, Times editor Dean Baquet, Univision’s Jorge Ramos, New York’s Olivia Nuzzi, and Hayes, of MSNBC.
  • Harvey Weinstein’s rape trial starts today. Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey—the Times journalists whose reporting on Weinstein kickstarted the global #MeToo movement—write, with Jan Ransom, that despite the breadth of wrongdoing they uncovered and its impact, the trial rests on “a narrow legal case, with an already-fraught back story and a highly unpredictable result.” (Jurors will rule on the cases of two women; other Weinstein victims chose not to participate, or could not, due to the statute of limitations.) Elsewhere, New York’s Irin Carmon and Amanda Demme are out today with a special feature on Weinstein, based on interviews with 21 of his accusers.
  • Schneps Media, a family-owned New York-area newspaper group, has added the New York edition of Metro to its portfolio; the New York Post’s Keith J. Kelly reports that as of today, Metro will merge with amNew York—the city’s other free daily, also owned by Schneps—under a joint “amNew York Metro” masthead. Schneps also acquired the Philadelphia edition of Metro. Both papers laid off staffers Friday. Some may be rehired.
  • The Hill—the newspaper that found itself at the center of the Trump-Ukraine scandal thanks to John Solomon, a former executive—could be for sale. According to Politico’s Daniel Lippman and Tina Nguyen, owner Jimmy Finkelstein has approached potential buyers including James Murdoch. Finkelstein disputed the premise of Politico’s story.
  • Journalists covering the British government have expressed concern at its plan to move daily briefings from Parliament to Downing Street. The switch—which increases official control over access—comes as Prime Minister Boris Johnson continues to wage war on the BBC. He may now block his ministers from appearing on Newsnight, a daily show.
  • And in a new book, Courtney Friel, formerly of Fox News, alleges that Trump propositioned her in 2010; Trump, Friel says, called her “the hottest one at Fox News” and asked her to visit his office “so we can kiss.” The New York Daily News has more.

ICYMI: Journalism and the foreseeable future

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.