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The Daily 202: Biden takes steps to rein in ‘forever wars’ in Afghanistan and Iraq

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 6/15/2021 Olivier Knox

with Mariana Alfaro

Welcome to The Daily 202 newsletter! Tell your friends to sign up here. On this day in 2010, President Barack Obama used his first Oval Office address to promise BP would pay for the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf, which he called “the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced.”

President Biden this week quietly took another step toward fulfilling his campaign vow to “end the forever wars” America has been fighting since Sept.11, telling Congress he supports repealing 19-year-old legislation giving the green light to invade Iraq. 

Formal White House backing for scrapping the 2002 Authorization of Use of Military Force (AUMF) came with the House poised to vote this week on doing so, and could help spur similar action in the Senate where past efforts have sputtered. 

Biden took the consequential step while on his first overseas trip since taking office, looking to restore relations unsettled by President Donald Trump and win over allies to a harder line on Beijing and Moscow. On Wednesday, he holds his first summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

The president did what his predecessor couldn't or wouldn't Trump complained about military entanglements overseas but vetoed congressional efforts to roll back the 2002 legislation, even as he drew down U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Joe Biden wearing a suit and tie talking on a cell phone: President Biden boards Air Force One at Brussels Airport in Brussels on Tuesday. © Patrick Semansky/AP President Biden boards Air Force One at Brussels Airport in Brussels on Tuesday.

The top general responsible for the Middle East, meanwhile, told Voice Of America the United States will not carry out air strikes to support Afghan forces after U.S. troops withdraw, but only to preempt plots to attack America or its close allies. 

VOA’s Carla Babb reports

“ 'That would be the reason for any strikes that we do in Afghanistan after we leave, (it) would have to be that we’ve uncovered someone who wants to attack the homeland of the United States, one of our allies and partners,’ Gen. Frank McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command, told VOA in an exclusive interview as he traveled toward the region aboard a U.S. military plane.” 

Together, the two announcements amount to a retreat from so-called “forever wars” — giving up executive branch war-making authority on the one hand, intentionally narrowing America’s self-appointed military responsibilities on the other.

How much of a retreat will depend on how Biden approaches negotiations with Congress on repealing and replacing the 2001 AUMF that set the stage for the invasion of Afghanistan but has been used for two decades as the legal underpinning for the entire war on terrorism. 

Presidents George W. Bush, Obama and Trump all cited the 2001 measure to justify American military action targeting dozens of groups in scores of countries around the globe over the past two decades. 

Even after Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s ouster in 2003, Obama and Trump cited the 2002 AUMF as part of their arguments for why other military operations including the war on ISIS and the U.S. troop presence in Syria were legal. 

While Congress retains the constitutional power to declare war, the last time it did so was against Romania during World War II. 

Instead, lawmakers have given their assent through AUMFs, which in theory let lawmakers define the scope of a military operation but in recent practice have granted the White House open-ended power to use force. 

Lawmakers have been loath to roll back those authorities or even fine-tune them, in part because of fears voters might then attach the responsibility for botched military operations to Congress rather than the president. Successive White Houses, meanwhile, have balked at any measures that significantly curtail their authority

That may be changing. Maybe.

The Biden administration signaled months ago it wanted to change that status quo repeal the 2002 AUMF and replace the one from 2001 with a narrower authority that would still let them take necessary action. 

“It is long past time that we revisit these and review them,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken testified at his confirmation hearing in January. 

The new White House statement on Monday endorsed legislation, crafted by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and backed by 134 other House members, repealing the 2002 measure. But it hinted at reluctance related to the rewrite of the 2001 AUMF. 

The statement noted repealing the 2002 measure is largely risk-free, since no current U.S. military operations “rely solely on the 2002 AUMF as a domestic legal basis,” so repeal “would likely have minimal impact.” 

“This is an important first step in working together with the administration on war power issues,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who has pushed for curtailing presidential war-making authority since the Obama era. 

In an apparent reference to 2001 and a 1991 Gulf War AUMF, the White House said it hopes to replace other measures “with a narrow and specific framework” as long as it “can continue to protect Americans from terrorist threats.” 

“In working with the Congress on repealing and replacing other existing authorizations of military force, the Administration seeks to ensure that the Congress has a clear and thorough understanding of the effect of any such action and of the threats facing U.S. forces, personnel, and interests around the world,” the statement said, in what sounded like a warning not to hamstring the executive branch

“As the Administration works with the Congress to reform AUMFs, it will be critical to maintain the clear authority to address threats to the United States’ national interests with appropriately decisive and effective military action.”

What’s happening now

Emails show how Trump and his allies pressured former acting attorney general Jeffrey Rosen and the Justice Department to try to challenge the 2020 election results. “The emails show how Trump's White House assistant, chief of staff and other allies pressured the Justice Department to investigate claims of voter fraud in the 2020 election and how Trump directed allies to push Rosen to join the legal effort to challenge the election result, according to a batch of emails released by Democrats on the House Oversight Committee on Tuesday,” CNN reports. “Trump's campaign to pressure the Justice Department was occurring as he was replacing Attorney General William Barr  who had publicly said there wasn't evidence of widespread voter fraud with Rosen, the emails show.

“On December 14 at 4:57 p.m., Trump's assistant sent Rosen and DOJ official Richard Donoghue a document claiming to show voter fraud in Antrim County, Michigan. An aide to Donoghue forwarded the document to the US Attorneys for the Eastern and Western Districts in Michigan. Less than an hour later, Trump tweeted that Barr would be leaving the Justice Department just before Christmas, elevating both Rosen and Donoghue to the top spots at DOJ. The emails also provide new detail into how Mark Meadows, then-White House chief of staff, directed Rosen to have then-Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Clark who reportedly urged Trump to make him acting attorney general instead of Rosen investigate voter fraud issues in Georgia before the US attorney there resigned in January. ...

“House Oversight Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, a New York Democrat, sent letters Tuesday to Meadows, Donoghue, Clark and other DOJ officials seeking their testimony before the committee. The committee last month requested an interview with Rosen. In a statement, Maloney said the emails show that ‘President Trump tried to corrupt our nation's chief law enforcement agency in a brazen attempt to overturn an election that he lost.’ ” 

An NIH study suggests the coronavirus may have been in the U.S. as early as December 2019. “The new report, published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases, bolsters earlier studies indicating the virus entered the country under the radar and may have been spreading in the first two months of 2020, well in advance of warnings to that effect from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” Joel Achenbach reports. “A volunteer in Illinois who gave blood on Jan. 7, 2020 — in a study unrelated to the emergent virus — tested positive for antibodies to SARS-CoV-2, according to the NIH report. It noted that the antibodies typically take 14 days, on average, to develop.” 

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Lunchtime reads from The Post

  • Countries lavish subsidies and perks on semiconductor manufacturers as a global chip war heats up,” by Jeanne Whalen: “When a semiconductor company opens a factory in Taiwan, the government covers almost half of the land and construction costs and 25 percent of the equipment costs. In Singapore, government subsidies cut the cost of owning a computer-chip factory by more than a quarter. Europe is cranking up financial incentives, too. And in China, the government is on track to spend as much as $200 billion to subsidize semiconductor companies through 2025. The bonanza of perks, detailed in a White House report last week, shows what the United States is up against as it attempts to entice more manufacturers to build domestic factories to produce computer chips, the precious electronics now in short supply.”

… and beyond

  • The human cost of Amazon’s employment machine,” by the New York Times’s Jodi Kantor, Karen Weise and Grace Ashford: “In contrast to its precise, sophisticated processing of packages, Amazon’s model for managing people — heavily reliant on metrics, apps and chatbots — was uneven and strained even before the coronavirus arrived, with employees often having to act as their own caseworkers, interviews and records show. Amid the pandemic, Amazon’s system burned through workers, resulted in inadvertent firings and stalled benefits, and impeded communication, casting a shadow over a business success story for the ages.” 
  • US military guns keep vanishing, some used in street crimes,” by the AP’s Kristin M. Hall, James Laporta, Justin Pritchard and Justin Myers: “In the first public accounting of its kind in decades, an Associated Press investigation has found that at least 1,900 U.S. military firearms were lost or stolen during the 2010s, with some resurfacing in violent crimes. Because some armed services have suppressed the release of basic information, AP’s total is a certain undercount.”
  • Texas grid operator urges electricity conservation as many power generators are unexpectedly offline and temperatures rise,” by the Texas Tribune’s Erin Douglas: “The Electric Reliability Council of Texas said in a statement Monday that a significant number of unexpected power plant outages, combined with expected record use of electricity due to hot weather, has resulted in tight grid conditions. Approximately 12,000 megawatts of generation were offline Monday, or enough to power 2.4 million homes on a hot summer day. ... [This comes] at a time of heightened anxiety around electricity after the state’s catastrophic February power outages left millions without power for days.”

Biden's Europe trip

Biden and E.U. leaders this morning ended a long-running aircraft trade dispute.

  • A 17-year trade dispute about subsidies for aircraft manufacturers is over, Michael Birnbaum, Anne Gearan and David Lynch report, a significant step in calming trade relations after the Trump years.
  • The five-year truce “was the latest effort in a transatlantic reconciliation tour that the new president started last week at the Group of Seven summit in Britain,” our colleagues write. The “deal will quell fears that the European Union and the United States could hit each other with tariffs on everything from French wine to Harley-Davidson motorcycles, as they did in recent years as part of the dispute, which also targets Boeing.”
  • “The two sides still need to agree on acceptable limits of public support for the two aircraft companies, an unresolved issue that appeared to be a potential source for tension, or at least disagreements.”
  • Biden hailed the agreement as a “major breakthrough” and said it could serve as a model for future understandings at a time when China poses challenges for both sides, John Wagner reports.
  • Today’s meetings focused on trade. Biden told leaders “he sees an ‘enormous opportunity’ to strengthen transatlantic trade and technological cooperation, as well as build greener economies, as he delivered opening remarks at a summit with European Union leaders in Brussels,” Wagner reports.
  • “America is back on the global scene,” European Council President Charles Michel told reporters as he walked alongside Biden. “It’s great news for allies, also great news for the world.”
  • The president departed Brussels this morning en route to Geneva, where he’s scheduled to meet Putin tomorrow. After arriving in Geneva today, Biden has a meeting scheduled with Swiss President Guy Parmelin.
  • Biden is scheduled to return to the U.S. after his meeting with Putin.

U.S. officials expect the summit with Putin to last at least four hours. They will likely discuss nuclear arms, cyberattacks and human rights.

  • “The logistics were previewed for reporters flying with Biden on Air Force One from Brussels to Geneva by a senior administration official,” Wagner reports. The two will be met by the Swiss president. “A small meeting — attended by the two presidents, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and interpreters — is expected to follow. After that, the official said, there will be a larger meeting, with the presidents joined by additional aides.”
  • “No meals — or ‘breaking of bread’ — will be involved, the official said. Before departing, both Putin and Biden are expected to hold separate news conferences.”

Quote of the day

“One of the reasons I’m optimistic is because of our younger generation in Europe, as well as the United States,” Biden told European leaders. “The young generation, this one, is the best-educated in American history. It’s also the least prejudiced, the most open and the most committed.”

The Biden agenda

Biden’s domestic terrorism strategy details an unprecedented focus on homegrown threats.

  • “The White House on Tuesday released a first-ever national strategy devoted solely to fighting domestic terrorism after more than two decades of successive administrations focusing almost exclusively on the militant Islamist threat,” Hannah Allam and Ellen Nakashima report.
  • “The 32-page strategy seeks to coordinate efforts across the government in law enforcement and prevention, some of which were already underway. It calls for new spending at the Justice Department and FBI to hire analysts, investigators and prosecutors; greater information-sharing between the federal government and state and local partners as well as with tech companies; and addressing the factors contributing to the problem, such as systemic racism.”
  • “The plan gives the White House imprimatur to a shift in counterterrorism priorities that began in recent years in response to a rise in deadly hate-fueled attacks and picked up momentum after the stunning Jan. 6 breach,” our colleagues write. “Informing the strategy is a March assessment by the intelligence community that domestic, violent extremism poses an ‘elevated threat’ to the United States.”

U.S. retail sales fell 1.3 percent in May, a moderate economic cool-down.

  • “May’s results were driven by a 3.7 percent decline in the sale of autos and related parts, as well as a 5.9 percent drop in building materials. Those sectors had previously benefited from federal pandemic relief spending that temporarily boosted consumption,” Aaron Gregg reports.

Senate Republicans are considering supporting a massive amount of infrastructure spending in part because they think it’ll help kill Biden’s agenda.

  • “Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has yet to tip his hand on whether he supports the bipartisan negotiations on Biden's plan for roads and bridges that are being led by Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio). But a growing number of Senate Republicans are betting that if a deal is reached on that sort of physical infrastructure, Democrats won’t have the votes needed to pass the rest of Biden’s ‘soft infrastructure’ priorities, such as child care and clean energy,” Politico’s Marianne Levine and Burgess Everett report.
  • “Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) surmised Monday that if a bipartisan package comes to fruition, the only remaining ways for Democrats to pay for a second bill on social spending programs are tax increases — too toxic to pursue.”
  • “The GOP bet might pay off. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) was noncommittal Monday on a second infrastructure package, saying only that ‘there’s a lot more that needs to be done, so we need to work it the same way we’re working this one.’ He declined to say whether he’d support legislation that only had Democratic votes.”

A bipartisan group of senators introduced a $40 billion bill to close the digital divide.

  • “The legislation, co-sponsored by Sens. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.), Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Angus King (I-Maine), highlights the growing support in both political parties to boost federal funding to bring more Americans online. The senators say the closure of businesses and schools during the coronavirus pandemic made clear the need for expanded Internet access,” Cat Zakrzewski reports. “Bennet said the funding is urgently needed to support the hybrid school and work environments that are likely to become more common as Americans begin to resume normal activities.”

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland urged Biden to fully protect three national monuments weakened by Trump.

  • In a confidential report, Haaland recommended that Biden “restore full protections to three national monuments diminished by Trump, including Utah’s Bears Ears, Grand Staircase-Escalante and a huge marine reserve off New England. The move, described by two people who spoke on the condition of anonymity because it was not yet public, would preserve about 5 million acres of federal land and water,” Juliet Eilperin and Joshua Partlow report.

Hot on the left

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) apologized for comparing face masks to the Holocaust but said she stands by her comparison of Democrats to the Nazi party. “Greene’s latest remarks come days before a fellow House member, Rep. Bradley Schneider (D-Ill.), is set to introduce a resolution to censure her over the Holocaust comparison,” Felicia Sonmez reports. “At a Monday afternoon press conference outside the Capitol, Greene acknowledged she had made a mistake and told reporters, ‘One of the best lessons that my father always taught me was, when you make a mistake, you should own it.’ ‘This afternoon, I visited the Holocaust Museum,’ Greene said. ‘The Holocaust is — there’s nothing comparable to it.’ ... 

“Greene [has] compared the Democratic Party to the Nazi party, which went by the full name Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, or the National Socialist German Workers’ Party. Despite the name, the Nazi party was not a socialist party; it was a right-wing, ultranationalist party. Even so, Greene told attendees at the rally in May: ‘You know, Nazis were the National Socialist Party. Just like the Democrats are now a national socialist party.’ Asked Monday about that statement, Greene declined to disavow it and instead renewed her criticism of Democrats.” 

Some pointed out that it is a bit too late for a sitting congresswoman to learn how bad the Holocaust was: 

Hot on the right

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), in an interview with the Ruthless podcast, said Vice President Harris has never called him to discuss the border issue. “The president hasn't called. The vice president hasn't called. The only person I've talked to are some folks in the Department of Homeland Security. And that was a long time ago. They have a game of pretend going on. They are pretending that the Texas border does not exist because they're not talking about it either publicly or privately or calling us or anything else like that,” Abbott told the conservative show. He also revealed he’s taking a gubernatorial race challenge from actor Matthew McConaughey seriously. “I take every campaign opponent very seriously. It could be as easy of an opponent as I had last time, which is Lupe Valdez, or it could be somebody more challenging. But I'll take everybody seriously,” he said. 

Vaccination rates vs. coronavirus cases, visualized

As recently as 10 days ago, vaccination rates did not predict a difference in coronavirus cases, but immunization rates have diverged, and case counts in the highly vaccinated states are dropping quickly. The Post found the connection between vaccine shots and coronavirus cases at the local level comparing more than 100 counties with low vaccination rates and more than 700 with high vaccination rates.

a close up of text on a white background © The Washington Post

Today in Washington

Biden will hold a meeting with the president of Switzerland today at 5:30 p.m. local time. 

Harris will deliver remarks on small businesses’ access to capital with Secretary of Treasury Janet Yellen at 1 p.m. At 4 p.m., Harris will meet with immigrant women who work in the care economy on the ninth anniversary of the creation of DACA. At 6:30 p.m., Harris will host a bipartisan group of women senators. 

In closing

“The Late Show” with Stephen Colbert returned to a live audience, and guest Jon Stewart said there was nothing he wanted to do more than “breath everyone’s air” 

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