Day: January 3, 2020


Surprise provision in defense bill grants path to citizenship for 4,000 Liberians…

In an unprecedented move, the Trump administration granted a path to citizenship for about 4,000 Liberians living legally in the United States on humanitarian programs.

The provision was buried in the $738 billion defense appropriation bill for fiscal year 2020 under “Other Matters.” The bill, which was signed into law on Dec. 20, will allow these Liberians to apply for green cards under Section 7611 of the National Defense Authorization Act titled “Liberian refugee immigration fairness”.

For over two decades, thousands of Liberian immigrants have lived with uncertainty in the US after fleeing civil war in the 1990s and early 2000s. Under both Republican and Democrat administrations, they received temporary respite in the form of humanitarian programs—the Deferred Enforced Departure and Temporary Protected Status programs—issued at the president’s discretion. Over the years they have been shuffled between both programs.

“We will not forget the unnecessary cruelty and threat of instability inflicted by the Trump administration in the first place.”

The biggest scare came in March 2018 when president Donald Trump announced the termination of the DED program and gave the more than 4,000 Liberian DED holders a year— until Mar. 31, 2019—to leave the US or risk deportation. The announcement sparked a lawsuit from advocacy groups, African Communities Together and Undocublack, and fifteen Liberian DED holders, which cited racial animus as the president’s motive for terminating the program. But just days before the deadline, the administration quietly issued an executive order extending the program until Mar. 30, 2020. And now, with the green-card provision, Liberians can apply for permanent residency before the expiration of their current statuses.

Once dubbed “America’s stepchild,” Liberia has had a nearly 200-year bilateral relationship with the US. The West African country was founded by freed African-American slaves who helped create the modern Liberian state in 1847. Tensions between indigenous peoples and the settlers’ descendants, who held a near monopoly on political control of the state until 1980, contributed to the early days of violence in the country.

Advocacy groups hailed the “legislative prowess” of Senator Jack Reed, a Democrat from Rhode Island and Senator Tina Smith, a Democrat from Minnesota. Reed has been a fierce advocate of the Liberian community; the provision in the NDAA bill is modeled after his long-championed Liberian Refugee and Immigrant Fairness Act. Rhode Island has one of the largest populations of Liberians in the US per capita, and since 1999 Reed has worked to allow Liberians to legally remain in the United States.

The provision finally “gives [Liberians] a chance to stop living from year to year, extension to extension, to finally be able to put down roots and have some security and legal equality,” said Amaha Kassa, executive director of African Communities Together.

“This breakthrough is a testament to the power of organizing, and what a focused movement can do. Most importantly, this resolution is a nearly three decades-long journey for Liberians,” said Patrice Lawrence, the National Policy and Advocacy Director for the UndocuBlack Network. “It is the proof and promise of the resilience of Black immigrants.”

Despite the good news advocates are pressing on with their lawsuit against the Trump administration. In October 2019, a federal judge in Massachusetts ruled that the Court lacked the authority to compel the President to act to extend DED for those currently in that status. The plaintiffs filed an appeal in December. For the groups involved, the focus is now on exposing the president’s motives for terminating the program in the first place.

“We will not forget the unnecessary cruelty and threat of instability inflicted by this Administration in the first place,” said Lawrence.

With the provision, the new concerns for groups like Undocublack is how speedily applications will be processed and when people will get their work permits while they wait.

“The [law] doesn’t require that [the Liberians] keep their work permits beyond March,” said Lawrence. “The difference with a gap of a week or two can mean loss of livelihoods, inability to pay for medicine, rent and support loved ones here and abroad.

“People will need to apply quickly,” she said. For Undocublack, spreading the word about the new law has meant taking to social media, WhatsApp groups and religious communities so DED holders can act promptly.

To be eligible for the green card, Liberian nationals must have been continuously physically present in the United States from Nov. 20, 2014, to the date they properly file an application for adjustment of status. US immigration will accept applications from eligible Liberians seeking to adjust their status until Dec. 20, 2020.

Ineligible applicants include those who have been convicted of any aggravated felony.

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Dems ask Supreme Court to save Obamacare…

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Democratic-controlled U.S. House of Representatives and 20 Democratic-led states asked the Supreme Court on Friday to declare that the landmark Obamacare healthcare law does not violate the U.S. Constitution as lower courts have found in a lawsuit brought by Republican-led states.

FILE PHOTO: The U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., U.S., June 17, 2019. REUTERS/Leah Millis

The House and the states, including New York and California, want the Supreme Court to hear their appeals of a Dec. 18 ruling by the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that deemed the 2010 law’s “individual mandate” that required people to obtain health insurance unconstitutional.

The petitions asked the Supreme Court, which has a 5-4 conservative majority, to hear the case quickly and issue a definitive ruling on the law, formally called the Affordable Care Act, by the end of June.

Texas and 17 other conservative states – backed by President Donald Trump’s administration – filed a lawsuit challenging the law, which was signed by Democratic former President Barack Obama in 2010 over strenuous Republican opposition. A district court judge in Texas in 2018 found the entire law unconstitutional.

“The Affordable Care Act has been the law of the land for a decade now and despite efforts by President Trump, his administration and congressional Republicans to take us backwards, we will not strip health coverage away from millions of Americans,” New York Attorney General Letitia James said.

Obamacare, considered Obama’s signature domestic policy achievement, has helped roughly 20 million Americans obtain medical insurance either through government programs or through policies from private insurers made available in Obamacare marketplaces. Republican opponents have called it an unwarranted government intervention in health insurance markets.

Congressional Republicans tried and failed numerous times to repeal Obamacare. Trump’s administration has taken several actions to undermine it.

In 2012, the Supreme Court narrowly upheld most Obamacare provisions including the individual mandate, which required people to obtain insurance or pay a financial penalty. The court defined this penalty as a tax and thus found the law permissible under the Constitution’s provision empowering Congress to levy taxes.

In 2017, Trump signed into law tax legislation passed by a Republican-led Congress that eliminated the individual mandate’s financial penalty. That law means the individual mandate can no longer be interpreted as a tax provision and therefore violates the Constitution, the 5th Circuit concluded.

In striking down the individual mandate, the 5th Circuit avoided answering the key question of whether the rest of the law can remain in place or must be struck down, instead sending the case back to a district court judge for further analysis.

That means the fate of Obamacare remains in limbo. The fact that the litigation is still ongoing may make the Supreme Court, which already has a series of major cases to decide in the coming months, less likely to intervene at this stage.

Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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Muslim population of England passes 3 million for first time…

The Muslim population of England has passed the three million mark for the first time, according to estimates prepared by Whitehall.

They said that Muslims are the fastest-growing faith group in the country – while allegiance to Christianity continues to decline.

The figures were produced by the Office for National Statistics as part of a research project to try for the first time to make regular assessments of the size of different ethnic and religious groups.

Until now religious and ethnic minority populations could be gauged only once a decade using the results of the full-scale ten-yearly national census.

The Muslim population of England has passed the three million mark for the first time (file image)

The Muslim population of England has passed the three million mark for the first time (file image)

According to the ONS assessment, Christians continue to decline in number, but the drop in allegiance to Christianity may be slowing.

Among other faith groups, the share of Hindus in the population has climbed slightly, while the proportion of Sikhs has fallen by a similar small amount. 

The scale of the Jewish and Buddhist shares of the population have remained stable, the report said.

The share of people who say they have no religion at all or who will not discuss their faith has risen to almost a third of the English population, an increase almost certainly a result of the fall-off in Christian belief.

The ONS also estimated that the proportion of people in England who say they follow a religion other than a major faith more than trebled between 2011 and 2016. 

The figures were produced by the Office for National Statistics as part of a research project. The results are shown on the chart above

The figures were produced by the Office for National Statistics as part of a research project. The results are shown on the chart above 

The increase may again be a result of people searching for new beliefs after becoming disillusioned with Christianity.

The new figures suggest that in 2016 – five years after the 2011 national census – there were 3,138,000 Muslims in England and Wales, up by more than 400,000 from 2.7 million over the five years. This was an increase of roughly 16 per cent.

In England alone, the ONS estimates said, there were 3,092,000 Muslims in 2016.

As a share of the population of England, the assessment indicated that the Muslim faith group made up 5.6 per cent in 2016 against 4.7 per cent in 2011.

The research report said: ‘There is a decline for the Christian group, though it remains the largest group in England. 

‘The lower proportion of the population in the Christian group is counteracted by higher proportions of all the other groups, with the largest increases seen for the Muslim, none or not stated, and other faith groups.’

Estimates said that Muslims are the fastest-growing faith group in the country - while allegiance to Christianity continues to decline (file image)

Estimates said that Muslims are the fastest-growing faith group in the country – while allegiance to Christianity continues to decline (file image) 

It added that statisticians cannot yet pinpoint the reasons for the growth in the Muslim population and the decline of Christianity. 

‘With a breakdown by any other characteristics, for example by age or sex, we cannot draw any conclusions about what causes these differences,’ the report said.

The speed of increase in the Muslim population estimated by the new research appears to match that detected by national censuses. In 2001, the census said Muslims made up 3.0 per cent of the numbers in England and Wales.

The decline in Christianity has been widely charted, not least by the churches themselves in their tallies of congregations.

The 2011 census recorded 33.2 million people in England and Wales who had declared themselves as Christian, but according to the new estimates this had fallen to 32,731,000 by 2016. 

The 2016 research said Christian share of the population in England alone dropped from 59.6 per cent to 56.6 per cent.

However, since evidence from censuses said the Christian population in England and Wales fell by 12 percentage points between 2001 and 2011, the decline of Christian faith may be slowing.

The new assessment suggested that many more people are adherents of minor faiths than were reported by the 2011 census. 

The speed of increase in the Muslim population estimated by the new research appears to match that detected by national censuses. Pictured: Muslims congregate at Regents Park Mosque for noon prayers in London

The speed of increase in the Muslim population estimated by the new research appears to match that detected by national censuses. Pictured: Muslims congregate at Regents Park Mosque for noon prayers in London

It said that the new methods – based on the Annual Population Survey, carried out among more than 300,000 people each year – found that 1.5 per cent of the population regard themselves as followers of small faith groups, compared to 0.4 per cent recorded by the census.

Nearly a third of the population, 32.8 per cent, either had no religion or would not discuss their faith in 2016, the report said, against 31.9 per cent who were of no faith or would not say in the 2011 census.

The report said the new assessments, which take in results from three years of the Annual Population Survey between 2014 and 2016, were not detailed enough to provide an accurate picture of the size of ethnic and religious groups in local areas.

But it said that ‘at the national level it is reasonable to assume some insight can be found in comparing the 2011 census results for England and Wales to those produced by our new method.’

It said: ‘This is the first time that illustrative estimates of population by religion have been produced using this method.’

The report added that there were ‘a number of potential gaps in the existing evidence base, including in the availability of up-to-date estimates of the size of the different religious populations. The most recent official estimates come from the 2011 census.

‘A comparison of the 2001 census with the 2011 census showed that the number of people identifying with the different religious groups changed considerably over this period, so there is a need to consider how populations may change between censuses.’

While the ONS said the new estimates could not be used to assess local populations, the 2011 census report said that ‘Muslims tended to be concentrated in particular areas of England. 

‘In over half of local authorities the proportion of the population who were Muslim was under one per cent. In over three-quarters of areas it was under six per cent.

‘The areas with the highest proportion of Muslims were in London with the boroughs of Tower Hamlets and Newham having 34.5 per cent and 32.0 per cent respectively. 

‘There were several areas outside London with proportions higher than 20 per cent including Blackburn with Darwen in the North West (27.0 per cent ), Bradford in Yorkshire and the Humber, Luton in East of England, Slough in South East, and Birmingham in the West Midlands.’

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TROUBLES: HILL looking for buyers…

Finkelstein, in an interview, called the premise of the story “not true” but would not elaborate. He acknowledged having hired the boutique investment firm Methuselah Advisors, which specializes in large media transactions and has made inquiries to several large media companies. He said he has had Methuselah “on retainer for quite some time to evaluate media opportunities and evaluate incoming offers that we get regularly.”

Either Finkelstein or his representatives approached James Murdoch about The Hill, according to a person familiar with the matter, who declined to comment on whether Murdoch was interested in buying the publication.

In recent months, The Hill has been cast in a critical spotlight because of columns by the conservative journalist and former Hill TV executive John Solomon, including one alleging that a former U.S. ambassador had improperly demanded that Ukrainian officials halt an investigation into a company affiliated with Hunter Biden, the son of former Vice President Joe Biden.

Solomon’s claims — which have been disputed by U.S. officials and in testimony on Capitol Hill helped to fuel an investigation by President Donald Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani, after which Trump withheld military aid to Ukraine while demanding that Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky launch a probe of the Bidens. The House investigation into the matter led to Trump’s impeachment, and at least one Democratic House representative said she would no longer talk to reporters from The Hill because of Solomon’s work.

Bob Cusack, executive editor of The Hill, announced in early December that the publication was reviewing Solomon’s stories and columns, amid serious questions about their accuracy and an uproar among the publication’s reporters. Cusack, who has said the review eventually will be made public, didn’t respond to requests for comment. Solomon has long maintained that he stands by the accuracy of his columns.

Finkelstein has been one of Giuliani’s best friends for many years, according to a former Giuliani associate. CNN reported last year that Finkelstein often boasted that he was friends with Trump as well, and that his wife once hosted a baby shower for Melania Trump. Trump himself has acknowledged this relationship, according to CNN, once asking a Hill reporter who interviewed him to “[t]ell Jimmy I said hello.”

Even disregarding the controversy over Solomon’s columns, a media investor familiar with The Hill noted that its advertiser-based business model would not be attractive for many potential buyers or investors. “No publication that does serious journalism has been able to make it on advertising” alone in recent years, the investor said, pointing to properties like Vice and Vox Media, which suffered similar problems.

Finkelstein strongly disputed that The Hill is in poor financial shape. “The Hill is highly profitable with strong revenue growth for many years” and said the company plans on expanding its editorial staff in the coming year.

Amid the controversy over Solomon’s columns, Finkelstein’s close relationship with the Trumps has come under closer scrutiny. According to CNN, Finkelstein frequently talks to Hill editors about Trump coverage, and intervenes in news coverage if he thinks it portrays the president too negatively. “Getting a phone call from Trump would fill him with joy,” one former employee told CNN.

The relationship went both ways. A senior employee at The Hill told POLITICO that Finkelstein attended the second presidential debate in 2016 as a guest of the Trump campaign, to the consternation of the newsroom’s leadership. “Luckily no one caught it. But it’s weird to have the owner of a D.C. publication sitting there, in the row behind the president’s family, during a presidential debate,” said this employee.

Finkelstein said in response that he was a registered Democrat “and although I do know The President and Giuliani, I am close to as many, if not more Democrats.” He did not address newsroom concerns about his attendance at the debate.

Finkelstein had once held an extensive media portfolio as the co-founder of the Prometheus Media Group, which purchased The Hollywood Reporter, Billboard and Adweek for $70 million in 2009. In 2013, Finkelstein’s co-investors in Prometheus bought him out of the company, reportedly in response to ballooning costs and little growth under his leadership.

Finkelstein also inherited the Manhattan-based media conglomerate News Communications from his late father, Jerry Finkelstein, which included a number of New York publications such as The National Law Journal, as well as The Hill. Between 2001 and 2007, Finkelstein sold every property in News Communications except for the Hill to various New York insiders, including former Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.).

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross once owned a substantial stake in News Communications, long before Ross entered the Trump administration, according to two people familiar with the matter and a statement released when he made the purchase in 1996.

According to the people familiar with the matter, Ross expected that the company would help his wife at the time, Betsy McCaughey Ross, then New York’s lieutenant governor, gear up for a failed gubernatorial bid. Tom Allon, who was executive vice president of News Communications, wrote in City and State last year that McCaughey Ross would call him almost every week asking him to run columns of hers in the local papers, and once threatened him by asking him: “Should I call Wilbur and tell him to force you to run my column today?”

In 2002, media mogul Conrad Black bought a controlling interest in The Hill and several local Hamptons publications for $20 million, only for Finkelstein eventually to take back control later. (In 2019, Trump pardoned Black, a personal friend, who had been convicted of fraud and obstruction of justice in 2007.)

Besides Finkelstein, The Hill has a number of minority investors. John Catsimatidis, the billionaire owner of Gristedes Foods and a former Republican candidate for New York mayor, has a financial stake in The Hill, according to two people familiar with his stake. As of early 2018, Joshua Harris, a billionaire private equity investor who co-founded Apollo Global Management and owns the Philadelphia 76ers, was a minority investor in The Hill, a fact that’s disclosed at the bottom of a 2018 story by the publication.

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Workplace Wellness Comes for Working Class…

According to U-Haul’s announcement, the company plans to note its policy on job applications, question applicants about their nicotine usage in interviews, and require them to consent to nicotine testing in the 17 states that allow it. The policy will apply to any nicotine use, which means that vapers and other users of smokeless tobacco will be excluded from the hiring pool, in addition to smokers. The policy won’t apply to people already employed with the company.

Nicotine is, indeed, tied to some serious health risks. Globally, smoking cigarettes kills about 8 million people each year. But employers seeking to control ever more aspects of their employees’ lives is already a troubling trend. It’s bleak when anyone’s health is regarded as malfunctioning workplace machinery, but the problem becomes even worse when these expectations are foisted on the workers least equipped to fight back.

U-Haul expects new workers, a lot of them doing low-wage physical labor, to abstain from a legal, common, and profoundly addictive habit that many pick up in high school. The company currently lists hundreds of openings for janitors, maintenance workers, truck drivers, and mechanics—the type of work often done by people with inconsistent access to health care, high stress levels, and few financial resources. They’re people already acutely beholden to corporate whims for even the simplest necessities, like feeding their children or buying gas to drive to work.

Refusing work to tobacco users is an extreme measure, but it’s not unheard-of in the United States. Alaska Airlines, Miracle-Gro, and some health-care companies forbid smokers in their ranks in states where it’s allowed, in addition to countless others with rules on tracking physical activity, weight, and sleep. This increase in managerial nosiness was encouraged for years by regulations in the Affordable Care Act, and now more than 80 percent of large employers offer wellness programs, many of which prompt workers to avoid punishment or compete for cash by counting calories, tracking steps, or losing weight. Some programs go further, requiring employees to maintain a certain waist size to avoid fees.

The issue with this approach is that it positions personal responsibility as a solution to problems that have little to do with individual choice. Codifying well-being into a competition with cash prizes—let alone using “wellness” as a criterion for hiring in the first place—posits that all workers can and should be striving for a particular set of (employer-determined) physical and mental goals that they could reach if they just tried.

In reality, individual health is largely a product of wealth. Money buys nutritious food, good medical care, safe housing, and clean water. In the case of smokers, it can buy services and medication to help them deal with a notoriously difficult addiction, and healthier substitutes for the stress relief that many of nicotine’s 47 million U.S. users say the drug provides. It buys better childhood education, which helps prevent people from picking up smoking in the first place. Nearly 90 percent of smokers start before they’re 18 years old.

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US on track for one of worst flu seasons in decades…

US on track for one of worst flu seasons in decades...

(Third column, 12th story, link)

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'Took Action To Stop War'…

A former U.S. intelligence official described Soleimani as “most experienced guerrilla fighter operating globally,” running operations with Iranian forces and proxy militias in Lebanon, Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. The official described his death as “devastating,” and said the “very disruptive” assassination would likely cause a power struggle in Iran.  

Former acting CIA director: There will be “dead civilian Americans” as a result of Qassem Soleimani killing

In April 2019, the U.S. designated the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, including the Quds Force, a “foreign terrorist organization.” In making the announcement, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo singled out Soleimani. 

“With this designation, we are sending a clear signal, a clear message to Iran’s leaders, including Qassem Soleimani and his band of thugs, that the United States is bringing all pressure to bear to stop the regime’s outlaw behavior,” Pompeo said at the time. 

Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser under Barack Obama who was instrumental in the 2014 Iran nuclear deal, said there’s “no question that Soleimani has a lot of blood on his hands.”

“But this is a really frightening moment,” he added. “Iran will respond and likely in various places. Thinking of all US personnel in the region right now.” 

More than 700 Army paratroopers are headed to Kuwait, and as many as 5,000 more paratroopers and U.S. Marines were expected to be sent to the Persian Gulf in the coming days.

While speaking to reporters off camera earlier Thursday, Esper said there were indications militias loyal to Iran were planning further attacks against Americans. 

“Do I think they may do something? Yes, and they will likely regret it,” he said.

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TRUMP: 'Reign of terror over'…

President Donald Trump, in his first comments since he ordered the drone attack that killed Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani, said Friday that the general’s decades-long campaign of terror across the globe has finally been ended.

In brief remarks at his Mar-a-Lago resort in south Florida, Trump said Soleimani, who commanded Iran’s Quds Force, had been caught “in the act” planning “imminent and sinister attacks on American diplomats and military personnel.”

“We caught him in the act and terminated him,” Trump said in a brief address. “His reign of terror is over.”

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A senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told reporters the attacks planned by Soleimani targeted U.S. diplomats, U.S military personnel and facilities that house Americans in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

Soleimani was killed in “a flawless precision strike” Thursday, Trump said. The drone strike occurred near the Baghdad airport.

“What the United States did yesterday should have been done long ago. A lot of lives would’ve been saved,” Trump said, adding that the Iranian general had “made the death of innocent people his sick passion.”

“For years, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its ruthless Quds Force under Soleimani’s leadership, has targeted, injured, and murdered hundreds of American civilians and servicemen. The recent attacks on U.S. targets in Iraq — including rocket strikes that killed an American and injured four American servicemen very badly, as well as a violent assault on our embassy in Baghdad — were carried out at the direction of Soleimani,” Trump said.

The president also attempted to reassure people who were concerned the strike would lead to all-out war with Iran.

“We took action last night to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war,” he said. “We do not seek regime change. However, the Iranian regime’s aggression in the region, including the use of proxy fighters to destabilize its neighbors, must end and it must end now. The future belongs to the people of Iran, those who seek peaceful coexistence and cooperation, not the terrorist warlords who plunder their nation to finance bloodshed abroad.”

Before Trump’s remarks, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani tweeted, “The great nation of Iran will take revenge for this heinous crime.”

The strike came amid escalating tensions between the Trump administration and Tehran over rocket attacks aimed at coalition forces in Iraq. U.S. officials have said those attacks were likely carried out by Iranian-backed militias with links to Soleimani’s Quds Force.

Mitch Felan contributed.

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How decision was made…

“He was calm, cool and collected,” said conservative radio host Howie Carr, who spoke with Trump on Thursday at Mar-a-Lago soon after the news first broke, as the president dined with GOP House leader Kevin McCarthy. “I had no idea there was anything out of the ordinary going on until I got home.”

As rocket attacks against U.S. bases in Iraq intensified over the last two months, the president had granted the Pentagon extraordinary latitude: The U.S. military had his permission to kill Soleimani the next time it had an opportunity to do so, according to a senior defense official who was not authorized to speak on the record.

“We had authority before the strike to take that action,” said the official, who wouldn’t say how recently Trump gave the Pentagon that authorization—whether it was hours, weeks or even months earlier. As recently as New Year’s Eve, the president was telling reporters that he didn’t want war with Iran.

For a man U.S. officials have portrayed as a terrorist mastermind, an evil genius responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans, Soleimani often flaunted his influence as he jetted between Tehran, Baghdad and Beirut for meetings with local potentates.

“I don’t think it was so hard [to find him] because he was not below the radar in the last two or three years,” said a former senior Israeli government official, who noted that Soleimani had previously moved around under strict operational secrecy. “But the last two or three years, he worked in the open.”

Former national security adviser John Bolton, a vocal advocate of regime change in Iran, described the killing of Soleimani as “long in the making.”

“We’ve known every minute of every day where Soleimani is for years—there’s no moment of any given day where five or six intelligence agencies can’t tell you where he is,” a Republican foreign policy hand said. “It’s been one of his talking points: The Americans can find me any time, they just don’t dare hit me.”

That calculation proved misguided in the wee hours of January 3 in Iraq, where Soleimani landed amid spiraling tensions between U.S.- and Iranian-allied factions. “He arrived at the airport and we had a target of opportunity, and based on the president’s direction, we took it,” the senior defense official said.

U.S. officials had received “an intelligence-based assessment that drove our decision-making process,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Friday, describing how the recent killing of an American contractor had changed the Trump team’s calculations about the “intelligence flow” they were receiving about Soleimani’s activities in Iraq.

U.S. officials, briefing conservative think-tank experts on Friday, said the U.S. had “exquisite intelligence” on a plot to strike Americans in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, according to someone familiar with the call. By killing Soleimani, the officials said, they disrupted such plans.

A night of confusion and rumors

The first dispatches from Baghdad on Thursday evening were cryptic. “Several Katyusha rockets have been fired at Baghdad airport, causing multiple casualties amid tensions with US,” the AP alert read.

Then, suggestions that something major had just gone down began trickling in. Word that someone—presumably the United States—had just killed Iran’s pre-eminent strategist first posted online shortly before 7 p.m. in Washington.

As journalists scrambled to confirm and make sense of the rumors flying around, Iraqi state television announced that Soleimani, along with several of Iran’s top Iraqi allies, had been killed. A BBC reporter shared a grisly image purporting to show Soleimani’s mangled hand, complete with his signature ruby ring; other photographs claiming to be of the remains of the convoy he was traveling in circulated online.

Photographs taken around this time showed President Trump huddling with McCarthy and White House aides Jared Kushner, Hogan Gidley and Dan Scavino at Mar-a-Lago.

“A memorable and historic evening at The Winter White House. Proud of our President!” McCarthy posted later on his Instagram feed.

It wasn’t until 9:46 p.m. on Thursday that the U.S. government officially confirmed Soleimani’s death, in the form of a terse, 163-word Pentagon press release emailed to reporters.

“At the direction of the President, the U.S. military has taken decisive defensive action to protect U.S. personnel abroad by killing Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force, a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization,” the statement read.

The president’s only comment on Thursday evening was to post an online image of the American flag 14 minutes earlier—an unusually coy tweet for the typically prolix commander in chief.

But his television surrogates were quick to supply their inside accounts.

Dialing into Fox News from his vacation, conservative commentator Sean Hannity—a close Trump confidant—shared what he’d heard from “one person familiar that was in the room.”

“The president said, ‘Our people will be protected. This will not be Benghazi,’” Hannity relayed.

“At one point,” the Fox host continued, “the president asked the question among some of his military and Cabinet and intelligence and State Department people, ‘Well, how long is it going to take to mobilize?’ And the words [came back from the president], ‘That’s not fast enough,’ and everybody said, ‘Yes, sir.’ And they got it done in really record time.”

Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, another of the president’s close allies on Capitol Hill who was with him at Mar-a-Lago, described the president’s mood on Thursday evening as “very focused.”

“I think he was really dialed into the ways in which Soleimani was planning to kill Americans, to harm our diplomats and to throw the entire region into civil war,” Gaetz said on Fox News. “I think we understand that this is a big moment in time. He appreciates the gravity of that.”

The White House seems to have informed only its closest congressional allies ahead of the move, with top Hill Democrats complaining that they hadn’t been informed in advance.

“I was briefed about the potential operation when I was down in Florida,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who was with the president at Mar-a-Lago earlier this week, told Fox News on Friday morning. “I appreciate being brought into the orbit.”

Defense Secretary Mark Esper appeared to warn Iran of the coming strikes hours beforehand on Thursday, amid a discussion of the recent attacks on U.S. bases by Iraqi militias tied to Iran.

“Do I think they may do something? Yes. And they will likely regret it,” Esper told reporters. “And we are prepared to exercise self-defense, and we are prepared to deter further bad behavior from these groups, all of which are sponsored and directed and resourced by Iran.”

In what might have been a sign of preparation for the strike, Pompeo cancelled a trip to Ukraine and several other countries this week to monitor the tensions in Iraq.

State Department officials summoned the Iraqi ambassador to the U.S. for a meeting Thursday afternoon, according to a person familiar with the situation. It was not clear what exactly was discussed.

“I think it’s been in the works for a while because I don’t think it was a last-minute thing,” a Middle Eastern official said. “I don’t think they were like, ‘Oh we just found him, let’s take him out.’ I think it was to mitigate an action that was actually in the works.”

“Tracking Solemani was likely something that was being done from at least May, when the major stream of threats emerged,” a former defense official said.

Actually targeting Soleimani posed a more formidable challenge, though, according to retired Lt. Gen. Michael Nagata, a former senior special operations commander in the Middle East who retired as strategy head at the National Counterterrorism Center last summer. “That depends on being able to know not only where he is, but where he’s going to be at a specific time in the future,” Nagata said.

That, in part, was why “we never decided to go after him personally” before, Nagata said – especially in earlier years when Soleimani maintained a lower profile and traveled less often, the military was reluctant to devote surveillance assets to a target few believed any president would ever allow to be struck.

“Soleimani was the spider at the center of the web, so there were recurring conversations over the years about what it would take to do something about him,” Nagata explained. “But what you had to grapple with was, ‘This is going to divert time, energy and resources from other tasks, and for a mission that I have no confidence we’re going to go through with.’”

Consultation with Israel

Pompeo held several phone calls with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in recent weeks, suggesting that Israel was not surprised by the strike against Soleimani.

Before departing on Thursday morning for Greece, Netanyahu told reporters in Israel, “We are in continuous contact with our great friend the U.S., including my conversation yesterday afternoon. I want to make one thing clear: We fully support all of the steps that the U.S. has taken as well as its full right to defend itself and its citizens.”

By Friday morning, Pompeo was dialing up his counterparts in foreign capitals, including Moscow and Beijing, to stress that the strike was a “defensive action” and that the U.S. hopes for a de-escalation in the crisis.

Iranian officials were warning of a severe reaction, and the Parliament in Baghdad was voting to bar U.S. troops from Iraq even as U.S. officials were planning to send more forces to the region. European diplomats traded anxious phone calls, warning about the potential for further regional chaos.

And Trump himself was finally weighing in, explaining and justifying the decision with a barrage of tweets and retweets. “He should have been taken out many years ago!” the president wrote.

Asked about the U.S. plan for managing the potential blowback from Iran, a U.S. defense official said, “Your guess is as good as mine. The ball’s in Iran’s court at this time. We’re waiting to see what their response is.”

Nancy Cook, Quint Forgey and Caitlin Oprysko contributed reporting.

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Watch coverage as President Trump comments on the U.S. strike that killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani. The president is traveling to Miami for the launch of the Evangelicals for Trump coalition.
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