Heather Cox Richardson
Last night, President Joe Biden spoke to the nation from the Oval Office to shore up U.S. support for Ukraine and Israel. “[H]istory has taught us that when terrorists don’t pay a price for their terror, when dictators don’t pay a price for their aggression, they cause more chaos and death and more destruction. They keep going, and the cost and the threats to America and to the world keep rising,” he said.
“[I]f we walk away and let Putin erase Ukraine’s independence, would-be aggressors around the world would be emboldened to try the same,” he said. “The risk of conflict and chaos could spread in other parts of the world—in the Indo-Pacific… [and] especially in the Middle East.”
Biden noted that Russian president Vladimir Putin has suggested he might like to take part of Poland, while one of his top advisors has called three other NATO allies, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, Russia’s “Baltic provinces.” Russian aggression there would draw the U.S. into war.
Iran is supporting Russia in Ukraine, he noted, and “it’s supporting Hamas and other terrorist groups” in the Middle East.
“The United States and our partners across the region are working to build a better future for the Middle East, one where the Middle East is more stable, better connected to its neighbors, and—through innovative projects like the India–Middle East–Europe rail corridor that I announced this year at the summit of the world’s biggest economies—more predictable markets, more employment, less rage, less grievances, less war when connected. It…would benefit the people of the Middle East, and it would benefit us.”
Biden explained that he was sending to Congress “an urgent budget request to fund America’s national security needs, to support our critical partners, including Israel and Ukraine. It’s a smart investment that’s going to pay dividends for American security for generations, help us keep American troops out of harm’s way, help us build a world that is safer, more peaceful, and more prosperous for our children and grandchildren,” he said.
That money, he said, would harden the Iron Dome that protects Israel’s skies after the October 7 attack on Israel by Hamas that took more than 1,300 lives. But he also said that the U.S. “remains committed to the Palestinian people’s right to dignity and to self-determination. The actions of Hamas terrorists don’t take that right away”
He explained that he had discussed with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu “the critical need for Israel to operate by the laws of war. That means protecting civilians in combat as best as they can. The people of Gaza urgently need food, water, and medicine.” Biden secured an agreement for such relief when he visited Israel on Wednesday, but so far the route from Egypt has not opened, at least in part because Israel and Egypt can’t agree on a way to inspect the trucks to make sure they are not carrying weapons.
Ethan Bronner and Henry Meyer of Bloomberg reported yesterday that President Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin have pressured Israel more deeply than any recent administration, demanding they adjust their planned ground assault on Gaza to minimize civilian casualties and think about what happens when the assault is over. U.S. officials are worried that Israel’s response to the October 7 attack could prompt Hezbollah to join the war, scuttling the administration’s attempt to stabilize the region and drawing the U.S. further into the conflict.
But Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition partners who have backed further settlements in the West Bank are eager to exact revenge on the Palestinians there, killing at least seven in the last week. U.S. officials told Thomas Friedman of the New York Times that “the representatives of those settlers in the cabinet are withholding tax money owed the Palestinian Authority [that exercises authority over the West Bank], making it harder for it to keep the West Bank as under control as it has been since the start of the Hamas war.” Netanyahu, who has been charged with corruption and fraud, needs those partners in order to remain prime minister and thus stay out of jail.
Meanwhile, the humanitarian crisis in Gaza is worsening as Israel has launched extensive airstrikes, killing what U.N. observers estimate to be more than 2,800 Palestinians, including several relatives of former representative Justin Amash (Libertarian-Michigan) who had been sheltering in a church. It has also driven about a million people of the 2.3 million in Gaza from their homes. Hospitals are closed, and food and water are scarce.
Foreign policy journalist Laura Rozen of Diplomatic gave Biden credit for his attempt to calm the region, support Israel, and protect Palestinian civilians but was, she said, “very worried” that the conflict would drag out and “inflame & destabilize [the] region & spark blowback & it will be very very ugly.” The U.S. had not been able to get “a single truck of aid into Gaza, much less set up a quasi-safe zone…five days after it thought it had a deal to do so.” It is not helping that X, the social media site formerly known as Twitter, is amplifying disinformation about the crisis.
The U.S. and governments in Europe have pressured Israel not to go into Gaza while diplomats in Qatar try to secure the release of hostages held by Hamas. Today, Hamas released two dual U.S. citizens who had been held hostage in Gaza.
In an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Roger Marshall (R-KS) took a different tack, noting that Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (believed to be the group responsible for the hospital explosion in Gaza) received more than $130 million in cryptocurrency in the past two years, and researchers believe this is just a fraction of the total. Cryptocurrency funds crime and terror, they wrote: more than $20 billion in illicit transactions last year “that we know of.”
Those exchanges are currently unregulated, and Warren and Marshall have introduced the bipartisan Digital Asset Anti–Money Laundering Act to bring digital assets under the same rules that regulate traditional payment systems.
Today the administration asked Congress for a little over $105 billion in funding for national security. The package would devote $61.4 billion to support Ukraine (some of it to replenish U.S. stockpiles after sending weapons to Ukraine); $14.3 billion to Israel for air and missile defense systems; $9.15 billion for humanitarian aid to Ukraine, Gaza, and other places; $7.4 billion for initiatives in the Indo-Pacific; and $14 billion for more agents at the southwestern border, new machines to detect fentanyl, and more courts to process asylum cases.
But Congress is currently unable to act. Seventeen days after the extremists in the House Republican conference ousted then-speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), the Republican civil war continues to paralyze the House. After key Trump ally Representative Jim Jordan (R-OH) lost a second round of balloting on Wednesday, his allies apparently spent Thursday threatening the colleagues who didn’t vote for him.
Representative Ken Buck (R-CO) explained: “So far I’ve had four death threats. I’ve been evicted from my office in Colorado…because the landlord is mad with my voting record on the Speaker issue. And everybody in the conference is getting this…. Family members have been approached and threatened, all kinds of things are going on….”
The threats simply hardened Jordan’s opposition. He lost a third ballot today, with 25 Republicans voting against him, and in a secret ballot the Republicans took privately over whether to keep him as their nominee for speaker, only 86 voted for Jordan, with 112 against. The House recessed for the weekend, despite the mounting crises that need to be addressed.
Having a key lieutenant in the House speaker’s chair, where he could, among other things, smear Biden by pushing to impeach him in the months before the election, would have been a huge boost for Trump. That Republicans refused to get behind Jordan even when he forced them into a public vote and then threatened them, much as Trump threatened them to line up behind him in the past, suggests they are starting to fear Trump less than they have for years.
Three plea deals in the past two days have intensified Trump’s legal troubles. Two of his own lawyers, Sidney Powell and Kenneth Chesebro, have pleaded guilty to some of the charges brought by Fulton County, Georgia, district attorney Fani Willis in the racketeering case against Trump and 17 others.
Yesterday, Powell pleaded guilty to trying to tamper with voting machines. In exchange for a lenient sentence, she will have to testify against others. As she was the person Trump considered tapping as a special counsel to investigate alleged voter fraud, she was at a key meeting with Trump allies Rudy Giuliani, former national security advisor Michael Flynn, and former Overstock chief executive officer Patrick Byrne.
Powell’s unexpected jump to the prosecution side—she was lying about the election just this week—put pressure on others, and today Chesebro also flipped. He was allegedly the one who designed the false electors scheme, although he has pleaded guilty to conspiracy to file false documents. In exchange for a lenient sentence, he has to turn over any evidence he has and testify truthfully against others in the case, including Trump.
In Michigan, a Republican man charged with participating in the false-elector plot also entered into a cooperation agreement yesterday, meaning he will talk to investigators and, if necessary, testify.
Finally, today, Judge Arthur Engoron, who is overseeing the fraud case against Trump and the Trump Organization, fined Trump $5,000 for violating the gag order he had imposed on October 3. Trump told Engoron that day he had taken down a social media post disparaging one of Engoron’s law clerks, but it remained up on his campaign website.
Engoron warned Trump that “future violations, whether intentional or unintentional, will subject the violator to far more severe sanctions, which may include, but are not limited to, steeper financial penalties, holding Donald Trump in contempt of court, and possibly imprisoning him pursuant to New York Judiciary Law.”