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October 7, 2023 Heather Cox Richardson

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Early this morning, Eastern Daylight Time, Hamas militants broke out of the Gaza Strip, where approximately 2 million Palestinians live, largely unable to leave because of the extensive restrictions Israel has imposed. They pushed as far as 15 miles (about 24 kilometers) into Israel, taking over at least 22 towns and firing at least 2,500 rockets. They have killed at least 250 Israelis, wounded more than 1,500 others, and taken hostages. The attack was a surprise, having an effect on Israelis that observers are comparing to the effect of 9-11 on people in the U.S. 

Hamas is a group of Palestinian militants that make up one of the two major political parties in the Palestinian Territories, which consist of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Hamas was established in 1987 and gained control of the Gaza Strip in 2007. Since then, Hamas and the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have periodically exchanged fire. In May 2021 that tension turned into an 11-day conflict that has simmered along the security fence between Israel and Gaza ever since. 

In a video address to Israelis, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: “We are at war and we will win it.” Israelis have killed at least 232 people and wounded more than 1,700 in retaliation for the attack. He promised the Israeli military will “take revenge for this black day” but that it “will take time.” He warned that Israel would turn “into ruins” the places where Hamas operates, and told residents of Gaza to “get out of there now,” although they have no way to leave. 

There are serious questions about how the Netanyahu government did not see this attack coming. It was either a spectacular intelligence failure or a security failure or both, and it strikes at the heart of the Netanyahu government’s promise to keep the country safe. At the same time, the attack is making Israelis rally together. The hundreds of thousands of Israelis who have been protesting Netanyahu’s strengthening hold on the government have said they would come together in this dangerous moment.  

A number of countries, including the U.S., have designated Hamas a terrorist organization. It is backed by Iran, which provides money and weapons, and last month high-level Iranian officials apparently met with Hamas leaders in Lebanon. Today Iran praised Hamas for the attack. Iran has opposed the recent talks between Saudi Arabia and Israel about normalizing relations. Since the decline of Iraq as an independent power, Iran has viewed the combination of Israel, its main enemy, with Saudi Arabia, its main rival for power, as the greatest threat to its security in the region. 

Iran and Russia are allies whose relationship has strengthened considerably as the Russian war against Ukraine has pushed the two increasingly isolated countries together to resist Western sanctions. Former Russian president and deputy chair of Russia’s Security Council Dmitry Medvedev said the attack was “expected,” and used it to accuse the U.S.

The Middle East, rather than Ukraine, was “what Washington and its allies should be busy with,” he said. “But instead of actively working at Palestinian-Israeli settlement,” he went on, “these morons have interfered with us, and are providing the neo-Nazis with full-scale aid, pitting the two closely related peoples against each other. What can stop America’s manic obsession to incite conflicts all over the planet?” 

Today’s assessment of the Russian offensive in Ukraine by the Institute for the Study of War said: “The Kremlin is already [exploiting] and will likely continue to exploit the Hamas attacks in Israel to advance several information operations intended to reduce US and Western support and attention to Ukraine.”

Both Saudi Arabia and Qatar have contextualized the attack by calling out Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people but also are calling for restraint and for the violence to stop. 

India, too, has expressed solidarity with Israel. 

In the U.S., the administration suggested that it sees a larger hand behind this attack and is working with partners and allies to contain the violence. In a statement, President Biden said the United States “unequivocally condemns this appalling assault against Israel by Hamas terrorists from Gaza, and I made clear to Prime Minister Netanyahu that we stand ready to offer all appropriate means of support to the Government and people of Israel.” It went on with a warning—“The United States warns against any other party hostile to Israel seeking advantage in this situation”—and a threat: “My Administration’s support for Israel’s security is rock solid and unwavering.”

Biden told reporters that he has been in contact with the King of Jordan, has spoken with members of Congress, and is in close touch with Netanyahu. He says he has directed the national security team to engage with their Israeli counterparts—“military to military, intelligence to intelligence,…diplomat to diplomat—to make sure Israel has what it needs.” He has also directed his team “to remain in constant contact with leaders throughout the region, including Egypt, Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Oman, the UAE, as well as with our European partners and the Palestinian Authority.” 

Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke today with the presidents of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which controls the West Bank, urging Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas to condemn the attack and to work to restore calm. He also spoke with the foreign ministers of Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, and Türkiye, as well as the European Union’s High Representative for foreign affairs. Blinken urged the EU, Türkiye, and the so-called Quint countries—France, Germany, Italy, the U.K., and the U.S.—to continue to engage on the issue, and he promised to stay in close contact with all the parties he talked to today.

In the United States, Republicans used the moment to attack President Biden. In an echo of a similar lie from Trump, who falsely claimed the Obama administration had paid $150 billion to Iran for a nuclear agreement, they took to social media in a flood to say that the U.S. had funded the attack on Israel because it had recently “paid” $6 billion to Iran. 

The statement was wrong across the board: the U.S did not pay Iran anything. It helped to ease restrictions on Iranian money that had been frozen in South Korea, enabling Qatar to take control of the money and use it for humanitarian aid. In any case, the money has not yet been transferred. Still, it was a surprising decision to attack the U.S. government at a time when the country would normally be united behind Israel.

Nonetheless, the attack has made the national implications of Republicans’ own troubles even more clear. In times of crisis, the executive branch briefs the so-called Gang of Eight on classified intelligence matters. The Gang of Eight is made up of the leaders of each party in the House and the Senate, and the leaders of each party in each chamber’s intelligence committee. But without a House Speaker, this leading intelligence group is missing a key member. It is not clear if the acting speaker, Representative Patrick McHenry (R-NC), who was tapped by former speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and not elected, can participate. 

The lack of a speaker is a problem. Although House committees can still meet, the House can’t do much. McHenry is responsible mostly for overseeing the election of a new speaker; he does not have the authority to bring bills or even resolutions to the floor. 

Notes:

https://apnews.com/article/israel-palestinians-gaza-hamas-rockets-airstrikes-tel-aviv-11fb98655c256d54ecb5329284fc37d2

https://www.state.gov/reports/2016-report-on-international-religious-freedom/israel-and-the-occupied-territories/israel-and-the-occupied-territories-the-occupied-territories/

https://www.state.gov/reports/2021-country-reports-on-human-rights-practices/israel-west-bank-and-gaza/west-bank-and-gaza/%20Authority%20maintains%20administrative,zones%20or%20settlement%20zoning%20areas.

https://www.cia.gov/the-world-factbook/countries/gaza-strip/

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/oct/07/hamas-and-israel-at-war-what-we-know-so-far

https://thehill.com/policy/international/4243414-medvedev-says-hamas-attacks-expected-development/

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/oct/07/civilians-will-pay-price-for-biggest-challenge-to-israel-since-1973

https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2023/10/07/statement-from-president-joe-biden-condemning-terrorist-attacks-in-israel/

https://ecfr.eu/publication/alone-together-how-the-war-in-ukraine-shapes-the-russian-iranian-relationship/

https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2023/10/07/remarks-by-president-biden-on-the-terrorist-attacks-in-israel/

https://www.cnn.com/2023/09/18/politics/iran-money-explainer/index.html

https://apnews.com/article/iran-north-america-donald-trump-iran-nuclear-ap-fact-check-727282b

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/16/world/middleeast/israel-trump-classified-intelligence-russia.html

https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/2017-11-23/ty-article/report-trump-revealed-covert-israeli-mission-in-syria-to-russians/0000017f-eb46-d3be-ad7f-fb6f95830000

https://www.state.gov/secretary-blinkens-call-with-european-counterparts/

https://www.state.gov/secretary-blinkens-call-with-turkish-foreign-minister-fidan-7/

https://www.state.gov/secretary-blinkens-call-with-palestinian-authority-president-abbas-5/

https://www.state.gov/secretary-blinkens-call-with-saudi-foreign-minister-prince-faisal-bin-farhan-4/

https://www.politico.com/news/2023/10/07/iran-praises-hamas-attack-israel-middle-east-00120491

https://www.politico.eu/article/iran-hamas-attacks-against-israel-palestine-jerusalem/

https://twitter.com/UnderSecTFI/status/1710706779980464482

https://www.defenseone.com/threats/2023/10/unprecedented-hamas-attack-israel-shows-apparent-quantum-leap-capabilities-experts-say/391039/

https://www.timesofisrael.com/world-reacts-in-shock-and-horror-to-attacks-on-israel/

https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-offensive-campaign-assessment-october-7-2023

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TGIF: WWIII May Come Tomorrow, But. . . Nellie Bowles

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Google employees protesting at the office. They were later fired. (Via X)

Welcome back. World War III watch over here continues. The Axis of Resistance seemed ready to kick off a major war, but then our Ayatollah stood down. The Houthi Youth at Columbia University camped out in solidarity, but the rebellion was short. Then, at press time, Israel struck back against Iran, so World War Watch resumed. You know what helps my stress? A good book. This one, by your faithful soldier, is out May 14.

→ Trump’s Gettysburg Address: Before Trump hit the campaign trail, I’d forgotten a little what he sounds like. In the amber of my mind, he was just “MAGA” and “Shithole countries” on a loop. Now, thanks to a campaign speech Saturday in Schnecksville, PA, we are back in the game with the craziest American orator who’s ever been in the game. The topic was Gettysburg. And our former president gave an impromptu slam poetry interpretation that left me snapping. 

Gettysburg, what an unbelievable battle that was. I mean, it was so much and so interesting and so vicious and horrible and so beautiful in so many different ways. It represented such a big portion of the success of this country. Gettysburg, wow. I go to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to look and to watch. And the statement of Robert E. Lee—who’s no longer in favor—did you ever notice that? He’s no longer in favor. “Never fight uphill, me boys, never fight uphill.” They were fighting uphill. He said, “Wow, that was a big mistake.” He lost his great general. They were fighting, “Never fight uphill, me boys,” but it was too late.

Vicious and horrible and beautiful. And the sun that blazes over the October sky. Who will watch the watcher? Who will sing the song of the lonely? Check out my self-published novel in the back, Trump says. 

→ Biden continues paying off successful young voters: Sorry, I mean “forgiving student debt.” Biden this week paid off another $7.4 billion in student loans, making his total student loan cancellation something like $153 billion. And by cancellation, I mean tax dollars were used to make the ledger go to zero. How much exactly? From Penn Wharton’s analysis: “We estimate that President Biden’s recently announced ‘New Plans’ to provide relief to student borrowers will cost $84 billion, in addition to the $475 billion that we previously estimated for President Biden’s SAVE plan.” But that goes to really needy people, right? Well, actually, at least 750,000 of those households are “making over $312,000 in average household income.” Meanwhile, to anyone who questions this allocation of resources, the White House answer is to shame them from official White House accounts by listing how much in pandemic loans were forgiven for House Republicans who own individual small business, which is weird because the reason businesses needed pandemic relief was because the White House banned them from operating. It’s a trap! And the only answer is to pay off every Media Studies PhD student’s loan. Colleges, for their part, are now charging up to $100,000 a year. Yes, literally. And since that’s ultimately going to be paid for by the taxpayers, why work to make it less expensive? Why cut corners when you need to remodel the cafeteria?

→ Oh, RFK’s running mate: For a flash I was thinking, Am I an RFK voter? I’m a mom who worries about plastics, and no, I don’t like how our national conversation is getting so divisive these days. And those steely blue eyes. It just felt right. But this week, my love affair hit a snag. Here’s RFK’s new vice-presidential pick, Nicole Shanahan, arguing that the Covid vaccine is not just bad, that it’s not just something she personally doesn’t want and should have the freedom to choose not to take, but that it should be banned. Over to Nicole: “Here is the devastating reality: it is not a safe vaccine, and must be recalled immediately. Many people are suffering who took it.” I guess this is really the agenda: RFK Jr. might be just asking questions, but if Nicole is chief executive, it sounds like she’s going to be executing. And that looks like legally required sound baths and astrology readings. The government understands that you want to take antibiotics, but you haven’t even tried rubbing yourself in honey yet. 

→ Wow, Kari Lake comes out as really pro-choice: Kari Lake, the Republican running for Senate in Arizona, has released a video about how she disagrees with Arizona’s total abortion ban, a ban she previously supported. I’m all for mind-changing. I actually want our politicians to put their finger to the wind every once in a while. Here’s Lake: “We as American people don’t agree on everything all of the time. But if you look at where the population is on this—a full ban on abortion is not where the people are.” 

She says, “I chose life, but I’m not every woman.” She pivots to Europe, which has all those annoyingly sensible abortion laws, and which is my exact same move: “I had the opportunity to visit Hungary, and it completely changed my view of how we should deal with this complicated, difficult issue.”

Is this Kari Lake sounding normal? In case you need to be reminded of the old Kari, here she is shaking hands with a statue. 

→ Oh no, “get out the vote” helps. . . Trump? Now that young people are for Trump and old people are for Biden, there’s another switcheroo: those who vote less or have never voted are more likely to be Trumpers. Call off the Rock the Vote campaigners! Return the blue t-shirts! The new message for Democrats to win needs to be: do not register new voters. Keep on keeping on. Stay home, save lives.


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April 18, 2024 Heather Cox Richardson

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I will not spend the rest of 2024 focusing on Trump and the chaos in the Republican Party, but today it has been impossible to look away.

In Trump’s election interference trial in Manhattan, Judge Juan Merchan this morning dismissed one of the selected jurors after she expressed concern for her anonymity and thus for her safety. All of the reporters in the courtroom have shared so much information about the jurors that they seemed at risk of being identified, but Fox News Channel host Jesse Watters not only ran a video segment about a juror, he suggested she was “concerning.” Trump shared the video on social media.

The juror told the judge that so much information about her had become public that her friends and family had begun to ask her if she was one of the jurors. Legal analyst Joyce White Vance noted jurors’ fear for their safety was a concern normally seen only “in a case involving violent organized crime.”

Nonetheless, by the end of the day, twelve people had been chosen to serve as jurors. Tomorrow the process will continue in order to find six alternate jurors. 

It is a courtesy for the two sides at a trial to share with each other the names of their next witnesses so the other team can prepare for them. Today the prosecution declined to provide the names of their first three witnesses to the defense lawyers out of concern that Trump would broadcast them on social media. “Mr. Trump has been tweeting about the witnesses. We’re not telling them who the witnesses are,” prosecutor Joshua Steinglass said. 

Merchan said he “can’t blame them.” Trump’s defense attorney Todd Blanche offered to “commit to the court and the [prosecution] that President Trump will not [post] about any witness” on social media. “I don’t think you can make that representation,” Merchan said, in a recognition that Trump cannot be trusted, even by his own lawyers.

An article in the New York Times today confirmed that the trial will give Trump plenty of publicity, but not the kind that he prefers. Lawyer Norman L. Eisen walked through questions about what a prison sentence for Trump could look like.

Trump’s popular image is taking a hit in other ways, as well. Zac Anderson and Erin Mansfield of USA Today reported that Trump is funneling money from his campaign fundraising directly into his businesses. According to a new report filed with the Federal Election Commission, in February and March the campaign wrote checks totaling $411,287 to Mar-a-Lago and in March a check for $62,337 to Trump National Doral Miami.

Experts say it is legal for candidates to pay their own businesses for services used by the campaign so long as they pay fair market value. At the same time, they note that since Trump appears to be desperate for money, “it looks bad.”

Astonishingly, Trump’s trial was not the biggest domestic story today. Republicans in Congress were in chaos as members of the extremist Freedom Caucus worked to derail the national security supplemental bills that House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) has introduced in place of the Senate bill, although they track that bill closely. 

The House Rules Committee spent the day debating the foreign aid package, which appropriates aid for Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan separately. The Israel bill also contains $9.1 billion in humanitarian aid for Gaza and other countries. A fourth bill focuses on forcing the Chinese owners of TikTok to sell the company, as well as on imposing sanctions on Russia and Iran. 

At stake in the House Rules Committee was Johnson’s plan to allow the House to debate and vote on each measure separately, and then recombine them all into a single measure if they all pass. This would allow extremist Republicans to vote against aid to Ukraine, while still tying the pieces all together to send to the Senate. As Robert Jimison outlined in the New York Times, this complicated plan meant that the Rules Committee vote to allow such a maneuver was crucial to the bill’s passage.

The extremist House Republicans were adamantly opposed to the plan because of their staunch opposition to aid for Ukraine. They wrote in a memo on Wednesday: “This tactic allows Johnson to pass priorities favored by President Biden, the swamp and the Ukraine war machine with a supermajority of House members, leaving conservatives out to dry.”

Extremists Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) and Thomas Massie (R-KY) vowed to throw House speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) out of the speakership, but Democrats Tom Suozzi of New York and Jared Moskowitz of Florida have said they would vote to keep him in his seat, thereby defanging the attack on his leadership.

So the extremists instead tried to load the measures up with amendments prohibiting funds from being used for abortion, removing humanitarian aid for Gaza, opposing a two-state solution to the Hamas-Israel war, calling for a wall at the southern border of the U.S., defunding the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and so on.

Greene was especially active in opposition to aid to Ukraine. She tried to amend the bill to direct the president to withdraw the U.S. from NATO and demanded that any members of Congress voting for aid to Ukraine be conscripted into the Ukraine army as well as have their salaries taken to offset funding. She wanted to stop funding until Ukraine “turns over all information related to Hunter Biden and Burisma,” and to require Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky to resign. More curiously, she suggested amending the Ukraine bill so that funding would require “restrictions on ethnic minorities’, including Hungarians in Transcarpathia, right to use their native languages in schools are lifted.” This language echoes a very specific piece of Russian propaganda.

Finally, Moskowitz proposed “that Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene…should be appointed as Vladimir Putin’s Special Envoy to the United States Congress.” 

Many congress members have left Washington, D.C., since Friday was to be the first day of a planned recess. This meant the partisan majority on the floor fluctuated. Olivia Beavers of Politico reported that that instability made Freedom Caucus members nervous enough to put together a Floor Action Response Team (FART—I am not making this up) to make sure other Republicans didn’t limit the power of the extremists when they were off the floor.

The name of their response team seems likely to be their way to signal their disrespect for the entire Congress. Their fellow Republicans are returning the heat. Today Mike Turner (R-OH) referred to the extremists as the Bully Caucus on MSNBC and said, “We need to get back to professionalism, we need to get back to governing, we need to get back to legislating.” Derrick Van Orden (R-WI) told Juliegrace Brufke of Axios:  “The vast majority of the Republican Party in the House of Representatives…are sick and tired of having people who…constantly blackmail the speaker of the House.”

Another Republican representative, Jake LaTurner of Kansas, announced today he will not run for reelection. He joins more than 20 other Republican representatives heading for the exits.

After all the drama, the House Rules Committee voted 6–3 tonight to advance the foreign aid package to the House floor. Three Republicans voted nay. While it is customary for the opposition party to vote against advancing bills out of the committee, the Democrats broke with tradition and voted in favor.

Notes:

https://www.nytimes.com/2024/04/18/opinion/donald-trump-trial-prison.html

https://www.politico.com/live-updates/2024/04/18/congress/hfc-on-alert-00153097

https://www.jns.org/house-rules-committee-debates-israel-aid-package-as-house-speaker-confronts-right-flank/

https://www.cbsnews.com/news/donald-trump-new-york-court-criminal-trial/

https://www.thedailybeast.com/jesse-watters-goes-juror-by-juror-to-sow-doubt-in-trump-hush-money-case

https://www.salon.com/2024/04/18/juror-quits-over-fear-of-being-outed-after-fox-news-host-singled-her-out/

https://www.rawstory.com/jake-laturner/#cxrecs_s

https://www.cnn.com/2024/04/18/politics/mike-johnson-speakership-rules

https://www.rawstory.com/freedom-caucus-2667810851/

https://rules.house.gov/bill/118/hr-8034

https://rules.house.gov/bill/118/hr-8035

https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/elections/2024/04/18/trump-campaign-funnels-money-to-his-businesses/73344744007/

https://www.axios.com/2024/04/18/mike-johnson-gaetz-motion-to-vacate-ukraine

https://www.axios.com/2024/04/18/jake-laturner-retire-house-gop-kansas

https://www.axios.com/2024/03/27/house-members-retiring-quitting-productivity

https://www.nytimes.com/2024/04/18/us/politics/house-israel-ukraine-aid-package-explainer.html

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April 17, 2024 Heather Cox Richardson

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