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Top US commander: No, we have not yet destroyed ISIS — and it won’t happen without us

We have not achieved victory yet over ISIS, the top US commander in the Middle East tells CNN as the Syrian Defense Force engages the terror army in one of its last bastions. Furthermore, says Gen. Joseph Votel, the SDF cannot achieve final victory on its own. Had anyone asked him, Votel says, they would have known that:

The US commander who has been leading the war against ISIS told CNN Friday that he disagreed with Donald Trump’s decision to pull troops out of Syria and warned that the terror group was far from defeated, in a stark public break with the President.

Joseph Votel, the top American general in the Middle East, also said that the US-backed forces on the ground in Syria were not ready to handle the threat of ISIS on their own.

“It would not have been my military advice at that particular time … I would not have made that suggestion, frankly,” Votel said of the troop withdrawal. “(The caliphate) still has leaders, still has fighters, it still has facilitators, it still has resources, so our continued military pressure is necessary to continue to go after that network.”

Not only hasn’t the job been completed, Votel says, neither has the plan Trump ordered to get the job done. Votel doesn’t advocate sticking around until the last terrorist is defeated, but ISIS is still too much for our local partners to handle:

“They still require our enablement and our assistance with this,” Votel said, adding that the US military was still in the midst of executing a “well-crafted military campaign.”

“We want (ISIS) to be able to be controlled or addressed by the indigenous partners, whether that’s the Iraqi security forces in Iraq, or the Syrian Democratic Forces in Syria, that when they are capable of handing this threat on their own, without our assistance, that will be another key criteria indicating to me that we have accomplished our mission of defeat of ISIS.”

One potential issue created by the announcement of withdrawal will be what to do with nearly 1,000 ISIS fighters captured in the last few weeks. Many of them, reports the Military Times, are just “cannon fodder,” unskilled fighters used as little more than armed human shields. A significant number of them present a much greater threat, and it’s far from clear that the SDF will be able to handle them in the absence of American troops:

While some of the ISIS detainees are front-lines troops and untrained cannon fodder, a significant cohort of them are also more capable militants trained as external operation planners and master bomb makers who pose a threat to the U.S. and its allies.

“It’s closer to a thousand than it is hundreds already in detention, with more to potentially come,” Army Gen. Raymond Thomas, III, who helms U.S. Special Operations Command, said at a Senate hearing Thursday. “[It’s] a huge area of concern for us, especially because they’re being detained by the non-nation state that’s otherwise known as the Syrian Democratic Forces.”

U.S.-backed SDF troops, who fought to clear ISIS out of the eastern portion of Syria, have been in limbo ever since the Trump administration announced that U.S. forces would eventually depart the country after ISIS’ defeat.

Early on in the anti-ISIS campaign, some within the SDF hoped to create their own nation. But Syrian reunification looks more likely at the moment, potentially creating a chaotic transition phase during which detained ISIS fighters can slip through the cracks and plot attacks abroad.

The US wants the nations of origin to take back these fighters and prosecute them. As the video below indicates in its second half, no one’s terribly enthusiastic about welcoming home the jihadis who went off to butcher people, nor even the women who went off to marry them. Sen. Tom Cotton suggested yesterday that Guantanamo Bay has plenty of room for them, but a US official called that an “option of last resort.” That doesn’t mean it won’t be used, however:

A U.S. State Department official said last week that if the fighters can’t be repatriated, though, the detention center on the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, could be used to hold them “where lawful and appropriate.”

A U.S. official said Guantanamo is the “option of last resort.” The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the U.S. has identified about 50 people among the more than 900 held by Syrian forces as “high value” suspects that could be transported to Guantanamo if they are not repatriated.

Sending Islamic State prisoners to Guantanamo would open up new legal challenges, according to experts.

Last month, France’s Interior Minister Christophe Castaner told French media that a handful of French jihadis had already returned home and more would follow soon after the departure of American troops. Britain refuses to take back citizens who joined IS and has reportedly stripped them of their citizenship. Other European countries have remained largely silent about the fate of men and women whom many see as a security threat.

If everyone else sees this as a security threat, and if the SDF is about to get bigfooted by Bashar al-Assad, Vladimir Putin, and Ayatollah Khameini, one can understand Votel’s frustration here. Even after the SDF and their US support destroys the last remaining ISIS claim on land for its caliphate, what’s left will be a threat for reconstitution in the vacuum left behind. Unless we capture ISIS’ leadership and make sure no one ever hears from them again, we will have the risk of seeing them rise up once more just as they did in the vacuum left by the US in 2011-13.

The SDF has surrounded what’s left of the ISIS footprint in eastern Syria. The military victory in Deir Ez Zor province looks inevitable, but that’s a battle, not the war itself. Votel wants to make sure everyone realizes that before we find ourselves back at square one in 2022.

Trump on emergency decree: I didn’t need to do this, I just wanted to build the wall faster

I’m imagining Andrew McCabe watching this clip, having just spent a day being told that the 25th Amendment should be reserved for cases of mental incompetence, and thinking, “Exactly.”

We don’t need to get into why this is a damaging thing for him to admit, right? We all graduated from fourth grade. Suffice it to say, George Conway’s probably correct that “I didn’t need to do this” will be the first line of every complaint filed in court against Trump’s emergency declaration.

There are two ways a court might attack his new executive order. One is on the law, imposing some sort of constitutional limit on the president’s power to declare emergencies when it’s clear that Congress opposes him doing so. The other is on the facts, i.e. even assuming for argument’s sake that the president can declare an emergency over Congress’s objection, the particular facts in this case don’t support the finding that an emergency exists. Courts prefer not to issue sweeping rulings about constitutional powers if they can avoid it, so now that Trump’s handed them a handy factual argument against his case — by his own admission the situation at the border wasn’t so urgent that he had no choice but to act when he did — they’ll probably rule against him on those grounds instead of on separation-of-powers grounds.

But we’ll see. Philip Klein thinks Trump’s point about speed in the clip can be used to bolster his emergency case. If it wasn’t an emergency, he wouldn’t be in a hurry, right? I think that’s undermined by the part where Trump says he “didn’t need to do this” but certainly Klein’s take is how the DOJ will try to spin the comment.

Why did Trump declare an emergency, anyway, when he might have achieved the same thing by using other forms of executive action and thereby avoided an attempt by Congress to override his declaration? This line from WaPo stopped me cold: “Yet for Trump, the negotiations were never really about figuring out how to win. They were about figuring out how to lose — and how to cast his ultimate defeat as victory instead.” I think that’s right. And if the point ultimately was more about saving face than securing a meaningful policy win, an emergency declaration does make more sense. It’s bold (“Trump liked the idea of declaring a national emergency because it’s the maximalist, most dramatic option,” notes Axios) and it reflects the right’s belief that illegal immigration is a genuine national crisis. Trump was afraid of looking weak in front of his base if he declined to choose the emergency route, notes a different WaPo story. Might as well go big. It’s not like the pipsqueaks in the Senate are going to vote to stop him.

There’s one glaring problem with an emergency decree, though, that Nate Silver noticed:

Silver’s been beating the drum for weeks now that Trump’s “all base, all the time” strategy is wrecking his chances of reelection. The reason is that the middle is the only slice of the electorate whose views of him ever change. The right loves him unconditionally and supports everything he does. (Sorry, Ann.) The left hates him just as unwaveringly. Follow the link to Silver’s post and you’ll find a table demonstrating just how rigid Trump’s approval was among Republicans and Democrats even during the shutdown. The only group where the needle ever moves is independents. If he can figure out a way to win more of them over, he’s suddenly in good shape for 2020. If instead he keeps doubling down on ideas that the right loves but which indies dislike, like an emergency decree to build the wall, he could be cooked. If righties outnumbered lefties in the electorate, victory might be a simple matter of turning out the base. But they don’t and it isn’t, as the midterms just proved. And no matter who Trump faces next year, that person’s bound to be a less juicy target for political attacks than Hillary Clinton was.

You don’t need to take it from Silver, though:

Follow the link in her tweet and read Walter’s piece about what Trump is up against in the midwest. The secret to his success in 2016, she notes, was much stronger enthusiasm among his fans than among Hillary’s plus feelings of ambivalence towards *both* nominees among less partisan voters. That enthusiasm gap will close next year thanks to Democrats’ eagerness to defeat him, though, and unpopular measures like an emergency decree for the wall do him no favors among the “ambivalent” segment. He’s governing as though his approval rating were 55 percent instead of 43. That’s the only explanation for why he’d wait until after his party lost total control of Congress to pick a fight on the wall, force an unpopular shutdown over it, prolong the political agony by giving Congress a few weeks to negotiate a deal that was bound to disappoint, and now finally resolve the standoff with an even more unpopular emergency decree. Even as a base strategy it’s failed. Some border hawks like Coulter are irate that he agreed to sign such a weak bill and some conservatives are irate at how he’s stepping on separation of powers. What a fiasco.

And the fact that it would end in a fiasco, if perhaps not this precise fiasco, was foreseeable from the start.

Here’s Trump giving Coulter the “Ann who?” treatment even though she helped write his immigration plan as a candidate. By the way, a bill is already brewing in the House that would overturn Trump’s emergency declaration. Guess who’s behind it.

Justin Fairfax’s second accuser was once given a restraining order

We already know a little about Vanessa Tyson, the first woman who accused Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax of sexual assault. But the second woman, who accused Fairfax of raping her in college, hasn’t really come forward into the public spotlight in the same way. Her name is Meredith Watson and the Associated Press reports she’s a private single mom living in Maryland:

The Maryland woman who has accused Democratic Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax of raping her while they were students at Duke University in 2000 is a single mother who values her privacy, worked for several years as a school fundraiser and had a sometime-turbulent personal life, according to friends and court records.

Before going public last week as the second woman to accuse Fairfax of sexual assault, Meredith Watson, a 39-year-old from the Baltimore suburbs, took steps to maintain her privacy, including taking down her social media accounts. Her legal team, which previously represented three female Fox News employees suing host Bill O’Reilly for defamation, has declined interview requests on her behalf. Online searches haven’t yielded current photos or even signs of current employment.

A review of court records by The Associated Press found that Watson has a history of financial disputes and accusations of stalking from an ex-boyfriend.

The stalking story was spelled out in more detail earlier this week by Politico. Watson’s boyfriend sought and was given a restraining order against her after an incident at a vacation house:

In a petition for the restraining order, obtained by POLITICO, the man described an incident in which Watson “was detaining me against my will … [and] not letting me leave” a vacation house in Corolla, N.C., and “dented the trunk” of his vehicle with her fist. In another instance, Watson showed up at his house stating “she was going to kill herself” and sent “threatening text messages” to the man, who had his sister come over to persuade her to leave, according to the document.

Watson’s spokeswoman, Karen Kessler, did not comment for this story before publication. After the story was published a lawyer for Watson, Nancy Erika Smith, said the order granted was a seven-day court order and that Watson “was not in the Courtroom and did not know about the proceedings or have an opportunity to be heard” when it was issued. The man “abandoned the effort after hearing from Ms. Watson’s lawyer,” Smith said.

Finally, there’s one more story from Watson’s past which broke this week at the NY Times. In addition to claiming she was raped by Justin Fairfax while in college at Duke, Watson has also claimed she was raped by basketball player Corey Maggette:

Nancy Erika Smith, the lawyer for the woman who accused Mr. Maggette and Mr. Fairfax, Meredith Watson, said in a statement Friday that Ms. Watson had been raped by a Duke basketball player during her sophomore year but did not name the player. Ms. Smith also said that Ms. Watson had reported her rape to an unspecified dean at the university, but that the dean had “discouraged her from pursuing the claim further.”

Duke has acknowledged it is investigating an allegation that a player raped the woman, but a spokesman for the university declined to comment on the identity of the player or the assertion that the university failed to act on the accusation…

Years before Ms. Watson came forward as the second woman to publicly accuse Mr. Fairfax of sexual assault, inflaming a political crisis in Virginia, she told multiple friends that she had been raped by Mr. Maggette, according to one of those friends and Facebook messages exchanged with another.

This second allegation of rape does seem to go back a long way. The friend who came forward says Watson told him about the incident involving a Duke basketball player back in 2001, just a few years after it happened.

A spokesperson for Watson says after she told a dean about the rape and he discouraged her from reporting it, she decided not to go to the police. I guess Duke will be able to find that dean and confront him, but I wonder if anyone, in this day and age, is going to confess to discouraging a college sophomore from reporting an alleged rape. For his part, Corey Maggette, who is now retired from the NBA and works as a basketball analyst, has denied every having sexually assaulted anyone.

Honestly, it feels like the Virginia story has fallen off the front pages at this point. Northam is still Governor and Fairfax is still Lt. Gov. and the sense of urgency to replace either of them seems to have vanished. The Democratic Party got one good news cycle by calling for them both to resign and the fact that they haven’t done so is barely news.

Trump declares emergency — border and legal

At least he did eventually. Donald Trump made a Rose Garden appearance to declare a state of emergency on the southern border as expected. However, he started off by talking about trade with China and the UK, the upcoming Hanoi summit with North Korea, and offered praise for both China and Russia for “partially” enforcing sanctions on Pyongyang.

For an emergency, Trump took his sweet time getting to the southern border:

“It’s a big lie, a big con game,” Trump said of people who say walls don’t work. “Chuck knows it. Nancy knows it.” Border agents “open the doors” on cars and see human trafficking at checkpoints, so they won’t go through the legal points of entry. Where walls are already in place, people don’t attempt entry, Trump argued — they go to where no wall exists. “We’re talking about an invasion,” Trump said, “of drugs, of human trafficking.” He pointed out two women who held up a pictures of their murdered family members, as he declared the national emergency to get funding to build more of the wall.

The talk then drifted back to China, oddly, as he discussed drug trafficking. Trump claims that Xi Jinping knows how to deal with drug traffickers … by executing them. “We could get rid of the drug problem” in the US if we were more like China, Trump argued.

Trump says he’s expecting to get sued, but c’est la vie:

So the shoe has dropped, as seemed inevitable from the first day of the shutdown. What about Congress? The White House threatened that Trump would “absolutely veto” any attempt to cancel out his declaration of emergency. They’re also mindful of standing in any lawsuit brought and will select construction sites with that in mind:

The officials, who included senior aide Stephen Miller and OMB deputy director Russ Vought — who said the president would veto any Hill efforts to block the plan — told surrogates the decision to focus the new wall construction in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas was part of an effort to deny California standing to sue. Areas along the southern border with “vehicle barrier” will also see immediate construction, the officials said.

Officials argued that it’s faster to build on land already owned by the government, but that eminent domain will be used aggressively.

Trump can veto a joint resolution to cancel the emergency resolution. However, as Allahpundit noted a couple of weeks ago, its passage in the first place could complicate Trump’s claim that an emergency exists at all. If the courts take up the position that they have a role in assessing whether a real emergency exists, Congress’ rejection of the idea would strengthen a judge’s impulse to overrule Trump and enjoin any actions resulting from it. In fact, this will get shopped to so many courts that it’s almost a sure bet that at least one judge will assume that prerogative.

The big question will be whether the appellate courts endorse that jurisdiction. The White House will argue that the judiciary has no role in evaluating the conditions of an emergency, which is a political question, but only to uphold the president’s authority to decide that on his own. That argument — similar to the argument on the so-called “travel ban” executive orders — might fly in some circuits, but there’s one in which it surely won’t. That may be another reason that the Trump administration wants to avoid California and the Ninth Circuit.

Chicago PD: Two Nigerians in Smollett case “suspects,” now under arrest … for something

Last night, the Chicago police department rebuked the local ABC and CBS affiliates for getting ahead of the story on an alleged attack on “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett.  At the time, both had reported that police had arrested two Nigerian brothers as potential suspects in what might have been a hoax. That reporting was “inaccurate,” the police announced.

At least it was at the time. Now the two have been arrested, police say, based on probable cause of having committed a crime. However, neither have been charged in the attack — yet:

Chicago Police say the two men being questioned in the attack on “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett are considered suspects.

Department spokesman Anthony Guglielimi said Friday that the men are in custody and have been arrested based on probable cause that they may have been involved in a crime. But he says they have not charged in the Jan. 29 attack.

Police have identified the men only as two Nigerian brothers. Police have been questioning them since they were picked up by officers at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport on Wednesday after returning to the city from Nigeria. On Thursday, police served a search warrant at their home.

Guglielmi says at least one of the men worked on “Empire,” but he does not know in what capacity.

Police are still speaking very cautiously about the investigation. They don’t want to use the word “hoax” yet, but they do note that they don’t have any video evidence of the attack either. The local CBS affiliate reports that police found some interesting items in a search of the brothers’ apartment:

“Interrogations will resume today with the two individuals and their attorney. While we haven’t found any video documenting the alleged attack, there is also no evidence to say that this is a hoax. The alleged victim is being cooperative at this time and continues to be treated as a victim, not a suspect. For clarification, the two individuals interviewed are classified as potential suspects. Detectives have probable cause that they may have been involved in an alleged crime and we are working to corroborate the allegations and investigative timeline as our investigation continues,” Chicago Police Department spokesman Anthony Guglielmi stated in an email Friday morning.

That’s quite an intriguing inventory from the search. Both the red hat and the black facemask fit Smollett’s description of the attack, as does the bleach. Needless to say, these are all also fairly mundane items in any household too. It certainly gets cold enough in Chicago to warrant a facemask hat, and bleach is a common item for laundry. The coincidence of finding all these still piques curiosity, as does the police interest in seizing “receipts” from the apartment.

The ABC affiliate reports that they’re hearing more explicitly that the two are being interrogated to determine whether Smollett concocted a hoax. At the moment, however, Smollett is still considered to be a victim:

Multiple sources have told ABC7 Eyewitness News that police are investigating whether Smollett and the two men staged the attack allegedly because Smollett was being written off of “Empire.”

A source familiar with the investigation told the ABC7 I-Team that Smollett failed to appear for an interview with detectives earlier Thursday, but has since spoken with police.

For what it’s worth, though, the purported motive for a potential hoax appears to be ruled out. Fox denied rumors that Smollett was being written off “Empire,” a move which supposedly was the catalyst for an attempt at martyrdom:

The Fox network, which produces and airs “Empire,” issued a statement insisting that “the idea that Jussie Smollett has been, or would be, written off of EMPIRE is patently ridiculous. He remains a core player on this very successful series and we continue to stand behind him.”

Hmmm. One could wonder whether Fox is trying to clear the air, or whether they’re trying to cover their own rear ends here.

At the moment, it’s impossible to conclude what — if anything — happened to Jussie Smollett. The arrest of the two brothers from the surveillance video and their connection to “Empire” certainly gives reason for skepticism about Smollett’s claims, but there’s no need to proceed beyond skepticism and jump to a particular conclusion one way or the other. The police seem very interested in getting to the bottom of this, and it’s best to wait until they do so. This is still a good reminder that extraordinary claims such as those made by Smollett require some extraordinary proof. That’s something that conclusion-jumpers should keep in mind the next time.

Beto O’Rourke: Yes, we should tear down the border fence near El Paso

A few years ago this would have been evidence that he’s not running for president. No one with national ambitions would claim that not only do we not need more border security, we should undertake to remove some of the security measures we’ve already built.

In 2019, with the left having embraced open borders forthrightly, it’s evidence that he is running.

He’s arguing at cross-purposes here, claiming that the fence doesn’t effectively deter illegal immigration but also that it deters it so effectively that it steers illegals into trying to cross into the U.S. over more dangerous unfenced terrain, which for some ends in death. This is a recurring theme of O’Rourke’s immigration rhetoric: Even non-lethal means of border enforcement are immoral because there’s always some risk of a lethal outcome if an illegal is determined enough to try to cross. It’s no different from saying that it’s immoral to bolt your door at night because doing so might force an intruder to break a window to gain entry and he might cut himself while stepping past the shards. To Beto, the moral burden is entirely on the homeowner, not the intruder. America’s basic sovereign prerogative in controlling who enters the country isn’t so much as a fart in the wind in his thinking.

I assume he would support withdrawing all forms of security at the border, not just walls, apart from counterterrorism checks on people entering. After all, by O’Rourke’s logic, what’s the difference between a fence and a Border Patrol outpost? If we’re worried about illegals putting their lives at risk by trying to cross through the desert, fear of detection by the BP is as much of an incentive as avoiding a physical barrier is. The chatter about fences and walls and so on obscures the more basic and ominous point, which is that he believes border enforcement is wrong in principle. And increasingly within his party, especially among younger progressives, he’s not alone.