Plus: Unpacking the FISA investigations, Rep. Katie Hill resigns, and a look at the week ahead
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Good morning, and happy Monday. We hope you had a better weekend than ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who blew himself up in a military compound in northwest Syria as U.S. troops moved in. If you are reading this newsletter, odds are you did. Unless, of course, you are a Bears fan.
“The World Is Now a Much Safer Place”
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the brutal and elusive leader of the Islamic State, died in an operation Saturday evening in Barisha, Syria, that included about 100 U.S. military personnel and took two hours, with U.S. troops suffering no casualties. President Donald Trump previewed the news in a tweet Saturday night and provided many details in lengthy press availability on Sunday.
“Last night, the United States brought the world’s No. 1 terrorist leader to justice,” Trump said, adding that Baghdadi “died like a dog … died like a coward.”
The elimination of Baghdadi is a big deal. At one time, ISIS controlled nearly half of Syria and vast swaths of Iraq. The terrorist group has conducted and inspired attacks on several continents, killing thousands of people. Thomas Joscelyn of the Long War Journal, a leading expert on Islamic extremism, tells The Dispatch: “Baghdadi's death is significant. He was the supposed caliph, to whom thousands of followers around the globe pledged their allegiance.” Now, the Islamic State’s “supposed caliphate controls little to no ground, and the self-declared caliph is dead.”
But, Joscelyn cautions, ISIS and like-minded groups still pose a threat. “Baghdadi's death isn't the end of ISIS, which lives on as an international terrorist and insurgency organization. … The fundamental problem is that the jihadist threat to America's interests and allies remains widespread, persistent and determined. The death of Baghdadi hurts ISIS, but actually helps al-Qaeda, which remains a stronger organization in some ways. Baghdadi was al-Qaeda's chief jihadist rival and al-Qaeda is certainly happy to see him gone.”
The successful operation was a political win for Trump, obviously, and his comments Sunday were undoubtedly a preview of what we’ll hear on the campaign trail over the next year.
“This is the biggest there is,” Trump said, suggesting the killing of Baghdadi was more significant than the killing of Osama bin Laden. Baghdadi, he said, was “the worst ever.”
Baghdadi didn’t occupy the same space in the American psyche that Osama bin Laden did. So, while Trump can justifiably tout the operation as a success, the political impact of Baghdadi’s death will not likely be as large.
One big question: Will Trump make the same mistake after the death of Baghdadi that Barack Obama made following the killing of Osama bin Laden?
Obama came to office determined to end the “war on terror” and his inclination to downplay the jihadist threat, long in evidence, grew after bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in May 2011. The Obama administration—and later the campaign—touted the death of bin Laden as if it signified the coming death of al-Qaeda. (John Brennan, at the time Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, even predicted the coming “demise” of al-Qaeda.)
But al-Qaeda not only survived, it adapted and strengthened. The jihadist movement expanded and new groups like ISIS, which Obama famously dismissed as the “J.V. team,” wreaked havoc. At a press conference in June 2015, Obama acknowledged “we don’t have, yet, a complete strategy” for ISIS—something that had become obvious well before he admitted it out loud.
Trump’s rhetoric on jihadism has been far more aggressive than Obama’s, but he, too, has signaled an eagerness to end American efforts to mitigate those threats. He has grown fond of using Rand Paul’s formulation to describe U.S. overseas counterterrorism efforts, calling for an end to America’s “endless wars.” Trump has desperately sought a deal with the Taliban that would allow him to claim victory before ending the U.S. presence there. And the operation that took out Baghdadi comes just weeks after his announcement that the US would be leaving Syria—and just days after his announcement that we’d be sticking around, reluctantly, to protect “the oil.”
Earlier this month, nearly three weeks before Baghdadi was killed, Trump had already declared victory over ISIS. “We defeated ISIS,” he said on October 7. “And we did it very quickly.”
This kind of triumphalism concerns many Republicans on Capitol Hill, who worry about Trump’s eagerness to leave what he calls the “bloodstained sand” of the region. “We must keep in mind that we were able to strike Baghdadi because we had forces in the region,” first-term GOP Representative Michael Waltz, a former Green Beret, told the New York Times. “We must keep ISIS from returning by staying on offense.”
Unpacking the FISA Investigations
Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation may be long dead, but we’re likely to see it resurrected in the news in the weeks ahead, for two different reasons. First, a federal judge last week granted the House Democrats running the impeachment inquiry the ability to look at Mueller’s books. And second, there’s the pair of Trump administration investigations into the long-ago origins of Mueller’s probe, each of which is showing public signs of progress.
It’s easy to confuse these investigations, given that on the surface they’re doing similar things: lawyers within the Trump administration trying to figure out whether there was any bad behavior at the Obama DoJ when the Russia investigation first got off the ground. But the two probes, which are operating independently from each other, have a few key differences that are important to keep in mind.
The Horowitz Investigation: The Internal DoJ Watchdog
First, there’s the investigation that recently wrapped at the office of Inspector General Michael Horowitz, the largely independent federal officer charged with investigating internal misconduct at the Department of Justice. Beginning in May 2018, Horowitz’s office examined DoJ’s decision in late 2016 to seek a warrant to surveil Trump campaign staffer Carter Page, whom some US officials suspected of being a Russian agent.
Some Republicans have long alleged that top Obama DoJ officials acted irregularly or even criminally in pursuing a warrant from a secret federal intelligence court to spy on Page. House Republican Devin Nunes released a memo last year arguing that the DoJ had relied on the Steele dossier—a salacious pile of largely unproven opposition research alleging a vast conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia—in seeking that warrant.
For Trump and his defenders, these and other allegations of possible misconduct blurred together into a single insidious narrative of rogue bureaucrats determined to bring his campaign down by any means necessary: the frequently denounced “witch hunt.”
But while those declamations of a vast left-wing conspiracy are all but certainly spurious, it’s far from implausible that the Horowitz report will uncover some level of bad behavior from the likes of former FBI Director James Comey and former Deputy Director Andrew McCabe.
Horowitz, an Obama appointee himself, won high praise for another high-profile investigative report last year, which looked into how the FBI handled the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server in 2016. There’s good reason to hope that this report will be comparable: a fair and factual assessment of what happened delivered without substantial political spin. That investigation wrapped last week, and Horowitz has promised to provide a lightly redacted report to Congress shortly.
The Barr Investigation: Here Comes the Law
The second investigation is both more recent and more opaque. Earlier this year, President Trump’s new attorney general, William Barr, announced that the Justice Department would conduct its own review of the origins of the Russia investigation, and tasked a longtime federal prosecutor, John Durham, with heading it up. Last week, the New York Times reported that Durham’s probe had ceased to be a simple administrative review and become a criminal inquiry, giving Durham new powers to issue subpoenas and, potentially, criminal charges.
Durham is known in D.C. as a methodical, no-frills prosecutor—much like Robert Mueller before him. Barr, on the other hand, has quickly acquired a reputation as one of Trump’s staunchest political allies in the executive branch, earned after he helped shepherd the president safely through the turbulent waters of the release of the Mueller report earlier this year. For that reason, this latter investigation is the likelier of the two to spark controversy if and when it tips into the public eye.
Scandal Takes Down Freshman Democratic Congresswoman
Less than two weeks after RedState published a report detailing sexual relationships between Rep. Katie Hill and multiple staffers, the Democratic congresswoman from California has resigned, saying “this is the hardest thing I have ever had to do, but I believe it is the best thing for my constituents, my community, and our country.” Hill was under investigation by the House Ethics Committee, and is pursuing legal options against those who released intimate photos of her.
A special election will be held, likely early next year, to fill her newly vacant seat. Hill was the first Democrat to win California’s 25th District since 1990.
The Week Ahead
Impeachment was the story of the week last week, and it likely will be again (and again, and again, and again, until it’s over). Set to testify this week, per the Wall Street Journal:
Monday: Charles Kupperman, former deputy national security adviser, was scheduled to testify but as of Sunday night will not, as he awaits a judicial ruling
Tuesday: Alexander Vindman, director of European affairs at the National Security Council
Wednesday: Catherine Croft and Christopher Anderson from the State Department; Kathryn Wheelbarger from the Pentagon
Thursday: Tim Morrison, the National Security Council’s Russia and Europe director
Expect Republicans to continue protesting the closed-door nature of these depositions. Lindsey Graham and Mitch McConnell’s resolution from last week condemning the House’s impeachment process has received sign-on from 50 of the 53 GOP senators; Mitt Romney, Susan Collins, and Lisa Murkowski are the only holdouts.
Also lurking? Former National Security Adviser John Bolton is said to be in talks with impeachment investigators about a potential deposition. Bolton left the White House on acrimonious terms, and there seems to be no love lost between him and the president. As one of the most senior officials who could testify to Trump’s behavior and decision making, Bolton holds the potential to do serious damage to his former boss—if he so chooses.
The last time we wrote you, the Nationals had stolen two games from the Astros in Houston and were heading back to D.C. for three games at home with a 64.5 percent chance of winning it all. Then they lost all three of those games (the final one in front of President Trump), and are now Houston-bound and on the brink of elimination. Game 6 will be played on Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET, with Game 7 the next night if necessary.
What Else We’re Reading/Watching
When National Review’s Kevin Williamson writes, you read. Sorry, we don’t make the rules. This time, he penned an essay about the recent Ellen DeGeneres and George W. Bush kerfuffle, in which a small segment of the Very Online made an enormous stink about the daytime TV host sitting next to and, gasp, being civil to the former president. An important reminder from Abraham Lincoln, by way of Williamson: “We are not enemies, but friends.”
The Wall Street Journal analyzed the diversity and inclusivity of S&P 500 member companies and various corporate sectors, and found a business case for heterogeneity: “The 20 most diverse companies in the WSJ study had an average annual stock return of 10% over five years, versus 4.2% for the 20 least-diverse companies.”
New York Magazine’s Olivia Nuzzi has a new cover story on Joe Biden’s seemingly plateauing campaign, declaring the former vice president “the least formidable front-runner ever” while assembling a series of heartwarming vignettes that explain his 27 percent plurality in the Democratic field. “Everybody is Joe Biden’s long-lost friend. Every baby is Joe Biden’s long-lost child.”
Presented Without Comment
Ohio State demolished Wisconsin 38-7 on Saturday with star defensive end Chase Young inserting himself into the Heisman discussion, but the OSU marching band, also known as “The Best Damn Band in the Land,” may have put on the most impressive performance of the day. Check out their Spongebob-themed halftime show below; it’s a shame they didn’t play “Sweet Victory,” but impressive all the same.
Toeing The Company Line
Jonah sent out a G-File on Friday—as he tends to do—and it is worth your while—as it tends to be. Where else can you get commentary on polyamory, G.K. Chesterton, and the Ukraine saga, all in one place? Be sure to give it a read here.
Also on Friday, and also from Jonah, we got a new Remnant podcast—this one with Cato Institute’s “prosperity expert” Marian Tupy. He and Jonah discuss reasons for economic optimism and the myriad of ways in which we are all indisputably better off than our ancestors. Add it to your queue here.
A correction: In the Friday Morning Dispatch, we misattributed a quote about the impeachment process. Our source was Princeton professor Keith Whittington.
Let Us Know
As we discussed last time, Kanye’s highly anticipated gospel album Jesus Is King arrived on Friday afternoon. Which of the below is the best lyric?
Closed on Sunday / You my Chick-fil-A / You’re my number one / With the lemonade
I was screaming at the referee just like Mike / Looking for a bright light
Before the flood, people judge / They did the same thing to Noah / Everybody wanted Yandhi / Then Jesus Christ did the laundry
That’s why I charge the prices that I charge / I can’t be out here Dancing With the Stars
They say the week start on Monday / But the strong start on Sunday
When I thought the book of Job was a job
Reporting by Declan Garvey, Andrew Egger, and Steve Hayes.