The White House has some ‘splaining to do on that Syria operation
Biden administration officials offered strange responses to legitimate questions that will do nothing but motivate reporters to ask more of them. Plus: Takeaways from Biden’s visit to NYC.
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The first question most Americans want to be answered after a military operation — like the one President Joe Biden authorized late Wednesday night in Syria that killed a top ISIS leader — is if there were any civilian causalities and, if so, who’s responsible for them.
There’s more on the operation in the next section. But for now, all you need to know is that President Biden said that the woman and children who died were killed when Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, also known as Hajji Abdullah, detonated a suicide vest.
“Our team is still compiling their report,” Biden said on Wednesday. “But we do know that as our troops approached to capture the terrorist, in a final act of desperate cowardice, he — with no regard to the lives of his own family or others in the building — chose to blow himself up … taking several members of his family with him just as his predecessor did.”
During a Q&A aboard Air Force One en route to New York City for the president’s meeting with local law enforcement officials, Ayesha Rascoe of NPR asked White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki if the US will provide evidence to confirm that the civilians were killed by the bomb for people who may be skeptical of the government’s version of events.
“Skeptical of the US military’s assessment when they went and took out the leader of ISIS? That they are not providing accurate information and ISIS is providing accurate information?” Psaki responded.
“Well, not ISIS, but, I mean, the US has not always been straightforward about what happens with civilians,” Rascoe said. “And, I mean, that is a fact.”
Psaki did say that the Defense Department would provide every detail it can once a final assessment is completed. But the front-end of her response left much to be desired. She also responded to a tweet from Felicia Sonmez at The Washington Post:
Over at the State Department, Spokesperson Ned Price was asked by Associated Press’s Matt Lee for evidence of the US government’s claim that Russia is producing a propaganda video as a pretext to invade Ukraine.
“If you doubt the credibility of the US government, of the British government or other governments and want to, you know, find solace in the information that the Russians are putting out, that is for you to do,” Price said.
What strange responses to legitimate questions that will do nothing but motivate reporters to ask more of them.
Reporting fundamentals train journalists to confirm information they’re provided, independent of who the source is. Generations of J-school students were drilled with the adage, “If you’re mother says she loves you, check it out” to illustrate this point.
Those questions were asked within the context of a two-decade war that just ended last August and was started based on the government asking us to just trust it. And Ukrainian officials have been asking the Biden administration to pump its breaks on all this talk about a Russian invasion because, in their eyes, it harms more than helps.
Ultimately, this all could become an insignificant footnote in Biden’s foreign policy legacy. But right now, that’s to be determined. And the only way we usually learn the true tea is through the doggedness my colleagues demonstrated with their questions.
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President Biden said he chose a special forces operation to take out Abdullah over an airstrike to minimize civilian casualties.
The White House said the operation had been in the works for months.
President Biden was first briefed in-depth on the operation over a month ago by operational commanders and was regularly updated by his national security team on the planning details of the operation, including a briefing in the Oval Office on Monday. A senior administration official said Biden gave the final go on the operation on Tuesday morning. And during the operation on Wednesday night, Biden monitored key aspects in real-time in the White House Situation Room.
The administration official said Abdullah directed ISIS operations that posed a direct threat to Americans and the government’s partners around the world. Abdullah was a driving force behind the genocide of the Yazidi religious minority in northwestern Iraq in 2014 and the enslavement of thousands of young Yazidi girls, many of whom were victims of rape. ISIS in Iraq and Syria was attempting to reconstitute under Abdullah’s leadership and he oversaw a network of ISIS branches from Africa to Afghanistan.
“The world is a safer place with him gone,” the official said.
The White House said the operation was especially difficult because Abdullah lived in a residential building with families on the first floor that the administration believes had nothing to do with ISIS and did not know he was living on the third floor. (A family on the first floor — one woman, one man and a number of children — were safely removed from the site in the earliest stages of the operation.)
Another interesting detail from another senior administration official: Military engineers studied the structure of the building that Abdullah lived in and determined that if were to set off a detonation that the structure would not collapse and kill the other people in the building.
“It was due to the risk of this unwitting family and other civilians in the area that President Biden ordered this air assault operation, placing our own troops at risk to minimize the risk to others,” the senior administration official said. “And they succeeded in that mission.”
The operation lasted two hours.
President Biden dedicated most of his public remarks to thanking specifically the US forces who executed the mission and the servicemembers and their families in general.
“The members of our military are the solid-steel backbone of this nation,” Biden said.
He also expressed gratitude to the partnership of the Syrian Democratic Forces and the intelligence community, Defense Department and national security team for their work.
“Last night’s operation took a major terrorist leader off the battlefield,” Biden said. “And it sent a strong message to terrorists around the world: We will come after you and find you.”
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Before Biden’s remarks on counterterrorism operation, he spoke on Wednesday morning at the National Prayer Breakfast about it being his late son Beau’s birthday and the last conversation they shared at the hospital.
He said he promised his son he would stay involved in public service instead of succumbing to grief.
“I’ll be good, Beau,” Biden said. “And he turned to me and he said, ‘Dad, I want you to know I’m not afraid.’”
Although Biden has endured enormous personal loss — including the death of his first wife and daughter in a car accident — he said he had so much help. “Everybody has got horrible things that happen to them.”
The President said one of the things he prays for is for members of Congress to get back to the place where they took the time to get to know each other.
“It’s hard to really dislike someone when you know what they’re going through is the same thing you’re going through,” he said.
Until the political and social incentives favor unity over tribalism, I’m unsure if the president’s call will be heeded anytime soon though.
He also encouraged the crowd to keep the faith and focus on what could be now just what is.
“One of the reasons why other countries sometimes think we’re arrogant is we believe anything is possible,” Biden said. “And faith in the American people will prove each and every day we’re a great nation because we’re, at our heart, a good people. We do bad things when we get frightened.”
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In the days leading up to President Biden’s visit to New York City on Thursday afternoon to spotlight his administration’s efforts to curb gun violence, White House officials rejected any notion that it was political in nature.
But it’s hard to view the visit on its merits without considering the current politics of policing.
Violent crime is up in big cities across the country. And two cops — Wilbert Mora and Jason Rivera were gunned down in NYC just two weeks ago. (Ahead of his trip, Biden spoke with family members of the officers to express his condolences for their loss. He also met with Sumit Sulan, the third officer who responded to the call with Mora and Rivera.) What was thought to be a racial reckoning in 2020 devolved into just a season of solidarity and support for Black Lives Matter has declined in the time since.
On the policy front, lawmakers failed to agree last year on provisions for comprehensive police reform in George Floyd’s name. And while civil rights activists are impatiently waiting for Biden to use executive action to authorize some of their policing priorities, White House aides say they’re not close to having anything ready for the president to sign.
The administration will tell you that police reform and public safety go hand-in-hand.
“President Biden has never been shy about saying that he thinks we need more police in our communities, but the should be out of their cars. They should be a part of the community,” White House Senior Advisor Cedric Richmond said in an interview on CNN’s The Situation Room on Thursday. “You can safe communities that have a great relationship with the law enforcement officers that patrol them. So we want more officers, but we want them to patrol in a constitutional manner though.”
New York City Mayor Eric Adams, a former New York Police Department captain, agrees.
“The president is here because he knows what the American people want: Justice, safety and prosperity — and they deserve every bit of it,” Adams said. “He knows that public safety and just are the bedrock of our economy, our democracy and our society.”
To realize these sentiments, the Justice Department will work with state and local law enforcement to address the most significant drivers of violence and crackdown on the illegal flow of guns sold in the south and carried up north, also known as the “iron pipeline.”
It will also launch an initiative to train prosecutors to help bring cases against people who use ghost guns to commit crimes. (Ghost guns are homemade firearms without commercial serial numbers. These untraceable weapons aren’t subject to federal or state commercial background check regulations.)
Biden has also requested $500 million in new funding to expand accountable community policing and for evidence-based community violence interventions.
“The answer is not to abandon our streets. That’s not the answer. The answer is to come together, the police and communities, building trust and making us all safer,” Biden said. “We have an opportunity to come together and fulfill the first responsibility of government and our democracy: to keep each other safe.”
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TODAY IN POLITICS
President Biden will receive his daily intelligence briefing this morning and then speak on the January jobs report. The president will speak and sign an executive order to improve timeliness, lower costs and increase quality in federal construction projects. Vice President Kamala Harris and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh will also speak. Biden will travel this evening to Wilmington, Delaware for the weekend.
The House is in and expected to vote on the America COMPETES Act, which will strengthen the nation’s supply chains, invest in US research and development and position the country to out-compete China. Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the committee chairs who shaped the legislation will speak ahead of the vote.
The Senate is out.
IN THE KNOW
— The Small Business Administration announced $1.5 million in new funding to expand outreach centers for women centers across HBCUs and higher education institutions serving Hispanic, Tribal and Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders communities. The SBA said the purpose of the new funding will be for up to 10 private, non-profit organizations to provide entrepreneurial development services to women, with an emphasis on socially and economically disadvantaged entrepreneurs in locations that are outside of the geographical areas of existing women business centers.
— The Departments of Justice and Agriculture launched a new online tool that allows farmers and ranchers to anonymously report potentially unfair and anti-competitive practices in the livestock and poultry sectors. This has been a focus of the Biden administration, which believes some of the country’s inflation is tied to the enormous market power of meat conglomerates.
— The Department of Homeland Security established the Cyber Security Review Board to bring together government and industry leaders to elevate our nation’s cybersecurity. The CSRB will review past security breaches and make recommendations on how to improve online protection across the private and public sectors.
— Unemployment claims dropped by 23,000 from last week, according to the US Labor Department. Claims had increased the previous two weeks due to the Omicron surge.
— House Democratic Leader Steny Hoyer sent a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas urging an investigation into bomb threats against HBCUs. The FBI declined to comment and referred me to the comment I reported in yesterday’s newsletter. A spokesperson for the Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment. “This is not the first time that HBCUs have come under attack. Indeed, at times in our history, Black students at HBCUs have been targeted and victimized by those who promote the twisted ideologies of white supremacy and white nationalism,” Hoyer wrote. “However, we must strive to ensure that threats like the ones this week are not minimized or ignored; indeed, they demand a government-wide, interagency commitment to rooting out this hate and protecting HBCU students, faculty members and staff.”
— Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown led a letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough to raise concerns about the lack of oversight for veterans transitioning for service to civilian life. “We know that the first-year post separation is critical for servicemembers, veterans, and their families,” wrote the senators. “These suicide prevention screening deficiencies could affect patient care at an important point in a veteran’s life. DoD and VA must do more to continue assisting servicemembers as they transition from uniform to civilian life.”
— A new study found that early childhood exposure to lead in drinking water is associated with increased teen delinquency risk. The Biden administration recently set a goal to replace all lead pipes, which impacts up to 10 million households nationwide. [Duke University]
— NBC has sold out all of its advertising inventory for the Super Bowl in Los Angeles on Feb. 13 between the Los Angeles Rams and Cincinnati Bengals. Some 30-second spots earned the network for as much as $7 million. [Brian Steinberg / Variety]
— Amazon increased the price of its popular Prime service. The annual fee of its membership is up from $119/year to $139/year and the monthly fee is will go from $12.99 to $14.99 starting Feb. 18. (Amazon says the price change for Prime membership does not affect the Prime Video-only subscription, which will remain at $8.99 per month.) [Taylor Soper / GeekWire]
— Some of CNN’s highest-profile journalists are unhappy about the sudden departure of Jeff Zucker, who retired as network president on Wednesday after a relationship with another employee that he failed to disclose was made public.“For a lot of us, the feeling is that, for Jeff, the punishment didn’t fit the crime,” Dana Bash, CNN’s chief political correspondent, told WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar during a meeting at the network's DC Bureau. “There are so many people who work here and got a second chance, because that’s what Jeff believed in, and… it feels like he didn’t get that chance.” [Dylan Byers / Puck]
— Related: The investigation that exposed Zucker’s undisclosed relationship has expanded to include communications with former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Investigators are reportedly looking at if Zucker advised the governor at the beginning of the pandemic in similar ways that led to Chris Cuomo’s dismissal from CNN. [Tatiana Siegel / Rolling Stone]
— The National Basketball Association unveiled a redesigned Kobe Bryant Trophy. The trophy is awarded to All-Star Game’s Most Valuable Player and was renamed after Bryant in the wake of his death two years ago. The NBA All-Star Game is on Feb. 20 in Cleveland. [Tim Bontemps / ESPN]
READ ALL ABOUT IT
Neel Dhanesha on clean energy jobs:
Making sure future clean energy jobs treat workers as well as or better than fossil fuel jobs will also ease the overall transition to clean energy, which is essential for the well-being of the planet. Jobs are an essential bargaining chip in American politics, and policymakers have an unprecedented opportunity to shape the clean energy industry while it is still nascent to set ambitious climate goals that don’t come at the expense of workers. President Joe Biden seems to be thinking about this already, saying he wants to ensure clean energy jobs created by his administration will be “good-paying union jobs.”
P. E. Moskowitz on an accidental trans enclave in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn:
It took me all of two weeks to realize I’d found something I hadn’t even known I’d been missing. I can pinpoint the moment: I was sitting in the apartment upstairs from mine, chilling with a few of my new building mates, listening to some record that was probably flown in from Berlin or Oslo. Here was a chaotic set of trans people that could support me, who could each in their own way model for me how to live a happy life in a terrible world. Jessie did not intend to create a trans haven. She simply found this place on Craigslist after moving to New York, liked living here, and so never left. The rest of us followed, and not because we wanted to form something unique, not because we were friends (we didn’t even know each other!), but because the opportunity presented itself. But nonetheless, that is what the building has become — a refuge for eight trans people, plus a constant rotation of trans friends who use our building as a hub to party, to work, to simply chill.
Anna North on school:
At the core of the conflict is the fact that parents don’t just need school to educate their kids — something that can, in many cases, be accomplished virtually (though some studies suggest that remote learning is less effective than in-person class time). They also need school, controversial though this may be, as a source of child care — it’s a supervised place kids can go while parents work, and at least in the case of public school, it’s free. This is the function that has truly broken down in the pandemic, with hard lockdowns giving way to rolling quarantines and intractable staff shortages that have left working parents constantly on edge, wondering when the next closure notice will send them scrambling for a backup plan.
Kara Voght on why big chains thrived while small restaurants died:
That independent restaurants struggled while big chains flourished wasn’t an inevitable outcome. Behind this dynamic was a force that has fiercely protected the industry’s Goliaths: the National Restaurant Association. On one level, the NRA is simply another trade association that lobbies on behalf of an industry and provides education and legal support to its members. In practice, it has bent federal, state, and local governments to the will of the corporate behemoths, claiming to represent the nation’s 500,000 food service establishments, even though less than 10 percent are members. Its critics call it “the other NRA”—an acronym the association avoids and almost never employs, but one that paints the group as comparable to the National Rifle Association, a trade group so enmeshed in corporate and GOP interests that it hardly represents the desires of most gun owners. Celebrity restaurateur Tom Colicchio described it with more diplomacy: “The [National Restaurant Association], I think, is conflicted—representing full independents but also representing the chains,” he tells me. “It’s kind of hard to do.”
Arthur C. Brooks on regret:
As uncomfortable as it is, regret is an amazing cognitive feat. It requires that you go back to a past scenario, imagine that you acted differently to change it, and with that new scenario in mind, arrive at a different present—and then, compare that fictional present with the one you are experiencing in reality. For example, if today your relationship with your partner has soured, your regret might mentally take you back to last year. You would remember your own pettiness and irritability, and then imagine yourself showing more patience, and being kind instead of hurtful at key moments. Then you would fast-forward to today and see a relationship that is flourishing instead of languishing.
Kevin T. Dugan on the worst day of Mark Zuckerberg’s reign:
At some point in the future, when the soul of Mark Zuckerberg has ascended to the heavenverse and is standing outside the pearly gates watching the Instagram Reels of his life, today will stand out as a day of reckoning for the 37-year-old CEO of Meta Platforms, the parent company of Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp. There he is, just before 4 p.m., ready to report his company’s fourth-quarter earnings. He knows they won’t be taken well — a rarity for the tech wizard who built an empire no matter how many whistleblowers, Russian bots, and anti-tech campaigns the world threw at it. But this report will show something different: that the way he did things is no longer working, that rivals have outmaneuvered him, and that his vision for the future in the metaverse isn’t shared by the real world. It would be a bad time and, perhaps, a demarcation that his moment has passed.
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