Warnings that “a Trump dictatorship is increasingly inevitable,”

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

Heather Cox Richardson

December 1, 2023

Former Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court, died today. Named to the court by President Ronald Reagan to honor a campaign promise, O’Connor was known as a pragmatist who paid attention to the real-world consequences of the court’s decisions and who was willing to rethink her positions. 

Traditionally, this understanding of how court decisions affect lives has come from justices who have held elective office before their elevation, and O’Connor fit the bill: she served in the Arizona state senate for 5 years, eventually becoming majority leader. Since she stepped down in 2006, there have been no judges on the court with that elective experience, and the court has swung hard to the right. 

For the sixth time in U.S. history, the House of Representatives today voted to expel one of its members, Representative George Santos (R-NY). Expulsion requires two thirds of the House. The resolution to expel Santos passed by a vote of 311 to 114, with 105 Republicans voting with all but four Democrats (two voted no and two voted present). 

Representative Max Miller (R-OH) told his colleagues that Santos’s campaign had charged both Miller’s credit card and that of his mother for contributions that exceeded legal limits and of which they were both unaware. “You, sir, are a crook,” he told Santos.

But the top four members of the Republican leadership—Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA), Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-LA), Majority Whip Tom Emmer (R-MN), and Conference Chair Elise Stefanik (R-NY)—and more than 100 other Republicans voted against expelling Santos, who is under criminal indictment and by whom a House Ethics Committee report suggested even more “uncharged and unlawful conduct.” 

Santos was a reliable right-wing vote, and losing him will make the Republicans’ majority even slimmer than it already was, suggesting that Republican leadership and much of the rank and file were more interested in power than concerned about criminal behavior among their conference.

“To hell with this place,” Santos said after the expulsion.   

The quest for power also showed up this week when a federal appeals court released secret text messages from Representative Scott Perry (R-PA) to other participants in the attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, revealing his frantic attempts to end the right of the American people to choose their president. 

In that attempt, Perry communicated with Justice Department attorney Jeff Clark, Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, many of Trump’s lawyers, and numerous Pennsylvania state lawmakers including Doug Mastriano, none of whom contacted authorities about the attempt to overthrow our democratic system.  

Perry also contacted other Republican representatives, including Jody Hice (R-GA), Jim Jordan (R-OH), Chip Roy (R-TX), and representative-elect Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) about the effort. They didn’t alert anyone to the anti-democratic effort, either. 

Stopped by a gag order from attacking the staff of Judge Arthur Engoron, who is overseeing the fraud trial of the Trump Organization in Manhattan, former president Trump has turned to attacking Engoron’s family. Trump has alleged on social media that Engoron’s wife has been posting about him on social media, but she has not: the posts Trump has identified are not from her, although blog posts by far-right extremist Laura Loomer said they were.

Trump seems to be trying to get out from under the legal cases against him by threatening participants in the legal system and by delaying the trials until next year’s election. It is his position that if he wins the presidency in 2024, Trump’s lawyer told a judge in Georgia today, Trump cannot be tried as part of the racketeering case of those who tried to overturn the 2020 election until at least 2029. 

In the Washington Post yesterday, neoconservative scholar Robert Kagan warned that “a Trump dictatorship is increasingly inevitable,” and today in The Bulwark, Jonathan V. Last agreed. He pointed to a conversation neoconservative thinker William Kristol had this week with journalist Jonathan Karl, in which Karl described a dystopian future painted not by Democrats but by former Trump employees: a government full of Trump loyalists who understand “that they are free to break the law because they will be pardoned” as Trump seeks retribution against those he sees as his enemies. 

“The storm is coming,” Last warned readers. “The world looks normal right now, but it is not. Forces are in motion that will bring us to a point of national crisis one year from now.”

And yet, in Washington, D.C., the federal judge overseeing the case concerning Trump’s attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 election today rejected Trump’s request to throw the case out on the grounds that, as president, he had absolute immunity for anything he did while in office.

Judge Tanya Chutkan wrote that being president “does not confer a lifelong ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ pass.” Trump’s “four-year service as Commander in Chief did not bestow on him the divine right of kings to evade the criminal accountability that governs his fellow citizens,” she added.

Trump is not exactly going out of its way to attract voters, either. He has once again embraced the idea of getting rid of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. More than 40 million Americans get their health coverage under the ACA, and as many as one out of every two people too young for Medicare have a pre-existing health condition that, without the protection of the ACA, could make healthcare insurers discriminate against them. 

Trump says he will replace the ACA with something better, but his advisors acknowledge that they have no plans to do more than chip away at the existing law.

President Joe Biden and Democratic leaders are calling attention to Trump’s threats against the ACA and today are touting that under Democratic governor Roy Cooper, North Carolina has become the 40th state to expand Medicaid under the ACA. This means that 600,000 North Carolinians are now eligible for healthcare coverage.

“Despite this progress, MAGA Republicans still want to get rid of the Affordable Care Act,” Biden said, “just like my predecessor tried and failed to do repeatedly.”

Other Republican leaders don’t seem terribly worried about attracting anyone but their base, either. House speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) was in the news today for having written the foreword for and promoted a book that advanced conspiracy theories against Democrats and attacked poor voters as “unsophisticated and susceptible to government dependency.”

And perhaps even the base will be dismayed by news out of Florida, where the chair of the state Republican Party, Christian Ziegler, is under investigation for sexual battery and rape. Ziegler is married to Bridget Ziegler, the co-founder of Moms for Liberty; she has said public schools are “indoctrination centers for the radical left,” and that she wants to bring “religious values” into them. 

The Florida Center for Government Accountability, which broke the story, calls the Zieglers “one of Florida’s top political power couples,” close to both governor Ron DeSantis and Trump.

The U.S. and China appear to be making an effort to move forward on better terms

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

Heather Cox Richardson

November 16, 2023

The summit of the leaders of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) economies continued today in San Francisco, California. 

Formed in 1989, APEC is made up of the economies of 21 nations around the Pacific Rim: Australia, Brunei, Canada, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Taiwan, Hong Kong, China, Mexico, Papua New Guinea, Chile, Peru, Russia, Vietnam, and the United States. Together, these economies make up about 62% of global gross domestic product and almost half of global trade.

David Sanger of the New York Times today noted an apparent shift in the power dynamic between President Joe Biden and Chinese president Xi Jinping, who met yesterday for a four-hour conversation. Earlier in his presidency, Xi was riding on a strong economy that overshadowed that of the U.S. and looked as if it would continue to do so. Then, Xi favored what was known as “wolf warrior” diplomacy: the aggressive defense of China’s national interests against what Chinese envoys portrayed as foreign hostility, especially that of the U.S. 

Under that diplomatic regime, Xi emphasized that liberal democracy was too weak to face the twenty-first century. The speed and momentous questions of the new era called for strong leaders, he said. In early February 2022, Russia and China held a summit after which they pledged that the “[f]riendship between the two States has no limits.” 

Things have changed. 

The U.S. has emerged from the coronavirus pandemic with a historically strong economy, while China’s economy is reeling from a real estate bubble and deflation at the same time that government crackdowns have made foreign capital flee. This summer, Xi quietly sidelined Qin Gang, the foreign minister associated with wolf warrior diplomacy, and in October, he replaced Defense Minister General Li Shangfu, who is under U.S. sanctions for overseeing weapon purchases from Russia. 

Indeed, China has also been quietly pushing back from its close embrace of Russia. Just weeks after their February 2022 declaration, Russia invaded Ukraine in an operation that Russian president Vladimir Putin almost certainly expected would be quick and successful, permitting Russia to seize key Ukrainian ports and land. Such a victory would have strengthened both Russia and China at the same time it weakened Europe, the United States, and their allies and partners. 

Instead, Ukraine stood firm, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and allies and partners have stood behind the embattled country. As the war has stretched on, sanctions have cut into the Russian economy and Putin has had to cede power to Xi, accepting the Chinese yuan in exchange for Russian commodities, for example. This week, Alberto Nardelli of Bloomberg reported that the European Union is considering another round of sanctions, including a ban on the export of machine tools and machinery parts that enable Russia to make ammunition. 

In a piece at the Center for European Policy Analysis today, Julia Davis, who monitors Russian media, noted that Russia lost an extraordinary 997,000 people between October 2020 and September 2021, even before the war began. Now it is so desperate to increase its population that its leadership claims to have stolen as many as 700,000 Ukrainian children and is urging women to have as many children as possible.  

Holly Ellyatt of CNBC noted that to the degree they even mentioned it, Russian media sniped at the Biden-Xi summit, but it was hard to miss that although Russian president Putin was not welcome to attend, Xi came and engaged in several high-level meetings, assuring potential investors that China wants to be friends with the U.S. Also hard to miss was Xi’s pointed comment that the China-U.S. relationship “is the most important bilateral relationship in the world.” 

Going into this summit, then, the U.S. had the leverage to get agreements from China to crack down on the precursor chemicals that Chinese producers have been shipping to Latin America to make illegal fentanyl, restore military communications between the two countries now that Li has been replaced, and make promises about addressing climate change. Other large issues of trade and the independence of Taiwan will not be resolved so easily. 

Still, it was a high point for President Biden, whose economic policies and careful investment in diplomatic alliances have helped to shift the power dynamic between the U.S. and two countries that were key geopolitical rivals when he took office. Now, both the U.S. and China appear to be making an effort to move forward on better terms. Indeed, Chinese media has shifted its tone about the U.S. and the APEC summit so quickly readers have expressed surprise. 

Today, Biden emphasized “the unlimited potential of our partnerships…to realize a future that will benefit people not only in the Asia-Pacific region but the whole world,… [a] future where our prosperity is shared and is inclusive, where workers are empowered and their rights are respected, where our economies are sustainable and resilient.” 

Biden and administration officials noted that companies from across the Asia-Pacific world have invested nearly $200 billion in the U.S. since Biden took office, creating tens of thousands of good jobs, while the U.S. has elevated its engagement with the region, holding bilateral talks, creating new initiatives and deepening economic partnerships. 

Today, Biden and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo announced that the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, an economic forum established last year as a nonbinding replacement for the Trans-Pacific Partnership former president Trump abruptly pulled out of, had agreed on terms to set up an early warning system for disruptions to supply chains, cooperation on clean energy, and fighting corruption and tax evasion.

In a very different event in San Francisco today, a federal jury convicted David DePape, 43, of attempted kidnapping and assault on account of a federal official’s performance of official duties for his attack on former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband Paul with a hammer on October 28 of last year, fracturing his skull. 

DePape’s lawyers did not contest the extensive evidence against him but tried to convince the jury that DePape did not commit a federal crime because he did not attack Pelosi on account of Representative Pelosi’s official position. Instead, they said, DePape had embraced the language of right-wing lawmakers and pundits and believed in a conspiracy theory that pedophile elites had taken over the country and were spreading lies about former president Donald Trump. 

DePape told jurors he had come to conspiracy theories through Gamergate, a 2014–2015 misogynistic online campaign of harassment against women in the video game industry, which turned into attacks on feminism, diversity, and progressive ideas. Trump ally Steve Bannon talked of pulling together the Gamergate participants behind Trump and his politics. 

Also today, a subcommittee of the House Ethics Committee set up to investigate allegations against Representative George Santos (R-NY) issued its report. The Republican-dominated committee found that Santos had lied about his background during his campaign and, furthermore, that he appears to be a serial liar. Those lies also “include numerous misrepresentations to the government and the public about his and his campaign’s financial activities.” 

That is, the committee found, Santos defrauded his campaign donors, falsified his financial records, and used campaign money on beauty products, rent, luxury items from Hermes and Ferragamo, and purchases at the website Only Fans. The subcommittee recommended the Ethics Committee refer Santos to the Department of Justice, and “publicly condemn Representative Santos, whose conduct [is] beneath the dignity of the office” and who has “brought severe discredit upon the House.” 

Santos says he will not run for reelection.

Republicans in chaos: Democracy shouldn’t exist, Jesus Christ is King, Gov shutdown is 8 days away

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

Heather Cox Richardson

November 9, 2023

The Republican-dominated House of Representatives remains unable to agree even to a way forward toward funding the United States government. This is a five-alarm fire.

The continuing resolution for funding the government Congress passed in September when then–House speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) couldn’t pass appropriations bills runs out on November 17. If something is not done, and done quickly, the U.S. will face a shutdown over Thanksgiving. This will not only affect family gatherings and the holiday, it will hit Black Friday—which, as the busiest shopping day of the year, is what keeps a number of businesses afloat. 

The problem with funding the government is the same problem that infects much else in the country today: far-right Republicans insist that their position is the only acceptable one. Even though the majority of the country opposes their view, they refuse to compromise. They want to gut the government that regulates business, provides a basic social safety net, promotes infrastructure, and protects civil rights. 

To impose their will on the majority, they don’t have to understand issues, build coalitions, or figure out compromises. All they have to do is steadfastly vote no. If they can prevent the government from accomplishing anything, they will have achieved their goal.

Senator Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) perfectly illustrated how much easier it is to destroy than to build today as he objected to the promotion of military leaders, one at a time. Democrats tried to bring up each promotion of career military personnel, many of whom have served this country for decades, by introducing them by name; Tuberville had only to say “I object” to prevent the Senate from taking up those promotions. 

That refusal to budge from an extreme position weakens our military. It also weakens our democracy, as was apparent today in Michigan as Republican lawmakers joined an antiabortion group in suing to overturn a 2022 amendment to the state constitution protecting abortion rights. Voters approved that amendment with 57% of the vote in a process established by the state constitution, but the plaintiffs want to stop it from taking effect, claiming that by creating a new right, it disfranchises them and prevents the legislature from making laws. They could launch their own ballot initiative to replace the amendment they don’t like, but as that seems unlikely to pass, they are instead trying to block the measure the voters have said they want.

The decision of Ohio’s voters to protect abortion rights on Tuesday has prompted a similar disdain for democracy there. The vote for that state constitutional amendment was not close—56.6% to 43.4%—but Republican legislators immediately said they would work to find ways to stop the amendment from taking effect. 

North Dakota state representative Brandon Prichard was much more explicit. Opposed to the measure, he wrote, “Direct democracy should not exist…. It would be an act of courage to ignore the results of the election….” According to James Bickerton of Newsweek, Prichard has previously called for Republican-dominated states to “put into code that Jesus Christ is King and dedicate their state to Him.” 

Now that refusal to compromise threatens the U.S. government itself. It has been apparent that the Republicans were unable to agree on a funding plan even among themselves. On Tuesday, as Nicole Lafond of Talking Points Memo pointed out, House speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) said Americans should just trust the Republicans. He told reporters: “I’m not going to tell you when we will bring [appropriations bills] to the floor, but it will be in time, how about that? Trust us: We’re working through the process in a way that I think that people will be proud of…. [M]any options…are on the table and we’ll be revealing what our plan is in short order.”

Today, although the House managed to vote on a series of extremist bills designed to signal to their base—lowering the salaries of government officials they dislike to $1 a year—the House Republicans had to pull the Financial Services and General Government appropriations bill after extremists loaded it with antiabortion language so they could not get the votes to pass it even through the Republican side of the aisle; earlier they had to pull the bill to fund Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and related agencies. 

“We’re still dealing with the same divisions we always have had,” a House Republican told Sahil Kapur, Scott Wong, and Julie Tsirkin of NBC News. “We’re ungovernable.”

And then, after pulling the bill, Speaker Johnson adjourned the House until Monday. As Representative Abigail Spanberger (D-VA) put it this afternoon: “We are just 8 days away from a devastating government shutdown—and instead of working in a bipartisan way to keep the government open, Speaker Johnson sent Congress home early for the weekend. This is completely unacceptable.”

Representative Ted Lieu (D-CA) wrote: “The training wheels fell off for [Republican] leadership this week. They tried to pass two appropriations bills. They failed twice. The government shuts down in 8 days and [the House Republican Party] HAS NO PLAN. Instead, we voted on stupid stuff today like reducing the salary of [the] W[hite] H[ouse] Press Secretary to $1.”

The problem remains what it has been since the Republican Party took control of the House in 2021: far-right extremists refuse to agree to any budget that doesn’t slash government funding of popular programs, while less extremist Republicans recognize that such cuts would gut the government and horrify all but the most extreme voters. In any case, measures loaded with extremist wish lists will not pass the Senate; this is why appropriations bills are traditionally kept clean.

Former House speaker Kevin McCarthy hammered out just such an agreement with the administration in May 2023 for funding, but the extremists refuse to honor it. For their part, Democrats are holding firm on that agreement. House minority leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) told NBC News correspondent Julie Tsirkin that “[a] clean continuing resolution at the fiscal year 2023 levels is the only way forward… We’re asking for the status quo to keep the government open.” 

The government budget isn’t the only casualty of the Republican chaos. The farm bill, which funds agricultural programs and food programs, must be renewed every five years. The measure authorized in 2018 expires this year, but extremists are eager to slash funding for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, formerly known as food stamps, endangering the passage of a measure farmers strongly support. 

And today the Defense Department pleaded with Congress to pass the supplemental budget request President Biden made in August to fund Ukraine’s military needs in its war against Russian aggression. 

The Republican Party’s problem continues to be America’s problem, and it is getting bigger by the day.

Voters reject Republican extremism, MAGA disinformation campaigns

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

Heather Cox Richardson

November 7, 2023

Today was Election Day across the country. In a number of key state elections, voters rejected the extremism of MAGA Republicans and backed Democrats and Democratic policies. 

Four of the most closely watched races were in Ohio, Virginia, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania.

In Ohio, voters enshrined the right of individuals to make their own healthcare decisions, including the right to abortion, into the state constitution. Opponents of abortion rights have worked hard since the summer to stop the measure from passing, trying first to make it more difficult to amend the constitution—voters overwhelmingly rejected that measure in an August special election—then by blanketing the state with disinformation about the measure, including through official state websites and with ads by former Fox News Channel personality Tucker Carlson, and finally by dropping 26,000 voters from the rolls. 

None of it worked. Voters protected the right to abortion. Since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision recognizing the constitutional right to abortion in June 2022, voters in all seven state elections where the issue was on the ballot have fought back to protect abortion rights. 

Today’s vote in Ohio, where the end of Roe v. Wade resurrected an extreme antiabortion bill, makes it eight.

Abortion was also on the ballot In Virginia, where the entire state legislature was up for grabs today. Republican governor Glenn Youngkin made it clear he wanted control of the legislature in order to push through a measure banning abortion after 15 weeks. This ploy was one Republicans were using to seem to soften their antiabortion stance, which has proven terribly unpopular. Youngkin was taking the idea out for a spin to see how it might play in a presidential election, perhaps with a hope of entering the Republican race for the presidential nomination as someone who could claim to have turned a blue state red. 

It didn’t work. Voters recognized that it was disingenuous to call a 15-week limit a compromise on the abortion issue, since most serious birth defects are not detected until 20 weeks into a pregnancy.

Going into the election, Democrats held the state senate. But rather than giving Youngkin control over both houses of the state legislature, voters left Democrats in charge of the Senate and flipped the House of Delegates over to the Democrats. The Democrats are expected to elevate House minority leader Don Scott of Portsmouth to the speakership, making him the first Black House speaker in Virginia history.  

Virginia voters also elevated Delegate Danica Roem, the first known transgender delegate, to the state senate. At the same time, voters in Loudoun County, which had become a hot spot in the culture wars with attacks on LGBTQ+ individuals and with activists insisting the schools must not teach critical race theory, rejected that extremism and turned control of the school board over to those who championed diversity and equity.

In Kentucky, voters reelected Democratic governor Andy Beshear, who was running against Republican state attorney general Daniel Cameron. A defender of Kentucky’s abortion ban, Cameron was also the attorney general who declined to bring charges against the law enforcement officers who killed Breonna Taylor in her bed in 2020 after breaking into her apartment in a mistaken search for drugs. 

In Pennsylvania, Democrat Daniel McCaffery won a supreme court seat, enabling the Democrats to increase their majority there. McCaffery positioned himself as a defender of abortion rights. 

There will be more news about election results and what they tell us in the coming days. Tonight, though, political analyst Tom Bonier wrote: “My biggest takeaway from tonight: in ’22 abortion rights had the biggest impact where it was literally on the ballot, less so when trying to draw the connection in candidate races. That has changed. Voters clearly made the connection that voting for GOP candidates=abortion bans.”

Speaker Mike Johnson and other extremist Republicans make it clear they are not interested in aiding Ukraine

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

Heather Cox Richardson

October 31, 2023

Today, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin testified before the Senate Appropriations Committee about the need to fund military aid to both Ukraine and Israel, along with humanitarian aid to Ukraine, Israel, and Gaza and increased U.S. border security, rather than accept the new measure from extremist House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA). Johnson wants to split off funding for Israel into its own bill and couple it with cuts to the Internal Revenue Service. Those cuts would dramatically decrease tax audits of those with the highest income and thus decrease revenue for the U.S. Treasury; they are popular with Republicans. 

Johnson and other extremist Republicans have made it clear they are not interested in continuing to help Ukraine fight off Russia’s invasion. 

Blinken and Austin got strong support not only from Senate Democrats, but also from many Senate Republicans, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who explained why it is important for the United States to “help Ukraine win the war” in a speech at the University of Louisville where he introduced Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States, Oksana Markarova.

“If Russia prevails, there’s no question that Putin’s appetite for empire will extend to NATO [the North Atlantic Treaty Organization], raising the threat to the U.S. transatlantic alliance and the risk of war for America. Such an outcome would demand greater permanent deployment of our military force in Europe, a much greater cost than the support we have provided to Ukraine. And of course, Russian victory would embolden Putin’s growing alliance with fellow authoritarian regimes in Iran and China.”

“So this is not just a test for Ukraine,” McConnell said. “It’s a test for the United States and the free world.”

But at the Senate hearing, protesters from CodePink, the group that describes itself as “a feminist grassroots organization working to end U.S. warfare and imperialism,” had a different agenda. They held up their hands, covered in red paint, with the word “GAZA” written on their forearms, repeatedly interrupting Blinken and calling for an end to funding for Israel, citing what the organization calls “Israel’s genocide of Palestine.” 

Over the weekend, as Palestinian militants continued to fire rockets into Israel and skirmish with Israeli troops, Israel began to push into northern Gaza in a ground operation U.S. officials said had been changed from the originally planned massive Israeli ground offensive to “surgical” strikes that would hit high-value Hamas targets but spare Palestinian civilians. 

That advance was accompanied by even fiercer airstrikes than previous ones, and today an attack on a Palestinian refugee camp appears to have caused significant civilian loss. The Israeli military said the attack “eliminated many terrorists and destroyed terror infrastructure,” with underground Hamas installations collapsing and taking adjacent buildings down with them.

From the time of Hamas’s initial strike against Israel on October 7, the Biden administration has been keen to stop the crisis from spreading. President Joe Biden was firm in his repeated declarations that the U.S would stand firmly behind Israel, warning “any country, any organization, anyone thinking of taking advantage of this situation, I have one word: Don’t.  Don’t.” 

To deter militants backed by Iran, the U.S. moved two American aircraft carrier strike groups into the region. After repeated drone strikes against U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria, on Wednesday, October 25, Biden warned Iran that the U.S. would respond if Iran continued to move against U.S. troops. On October 27 the U.S. carried out airstrikes against munitions stockpiles stored at two facilities in eastern Syria linked to militants backed by Iran. Secretary of Defense Austin emphasized that the U.S. actions were “precision self-defense strikes” and were separate from the conflict in Gaza. 

Drone attacks on U.S. troops in the area have increased, and the Institute for the Study of War assessed today that Iranian-backed militants, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah, “are creating the expectation in the information environment that Hezbollah will escalate against Israel on or around November 3.” The U.S. today announced it is sending 300 additional troops to U.S. Central Command, whose responsibility includes the Middle East, Central Asia and parts of South Asia, to protect U.S. troops from drone attacks by Iran-backed militant groups. Air Force Brigadier General Pat Ryder told reporters the troops are not going to Israel. 

In addition to trying to hold off Iran from expanding the conflict, the U.S. has been trying to support Israel’s right to respond while also demanding that Israel follow the rules of war. The U.S. has firmly condemned the October 7 attack by Hamas on Israeli civilians as “an act of sheer evil.” That evil included the taking of hostages—which is a war crime—including U.S. citizens.

But, all along, the administration has warned Israel that it must not violate international law in its retaliation for the attack. On October 18, in a remarkable admission, Biden advised Israelis not to be consumed by their rage. “After 9/11, we were enraged in the United States. And while we sought justice and got justice, we also made mistakes.” 

Responding to the October 7 massacre, he said, “requires being deliberate. It requires asking very hard questions. It requires clarity about the objectives and an honest assessment about whether the path you are on will achieve those objectives.” 

Despite the administration’s warnings, while international eyes are on Gaza, according to the United Nations, settlers in the West Bank encouraged by the policies of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu have killed at least 115 Palestinians, injured more than 2,000 more, and forcibly displaced almost 1,000. The United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross are concerned that Israel’s pursuit of Hamas militants has led it to commit war crimes of its own, enacting collective punishment on the civilians of Gaza by denying them food, water, and electricity as well as instructing them to leave their homes, displacing well over a million people. 

While the U.S. says it does not trust the numbers of casualties asserted by Hamas, it believes from other sources that there have been “many thousands of civilian deaths in Gaza thus far in the conflict…. Way too many.” Today the National Security Council’s coordinator for strategic communications, John Kirby, reminded reporters: “We aren’t on the ground fighting in this war. There’s no intent to do that…. [T]hese are Israeli military operations. They get to decide what their aims and strategy are. They get to decide what their tactics are. They get to decide how they’re going to decide to go after Hamas.

“We’re doing everything we can to support them—including providing our perspectives, including asking them hard questions about their aims and their strategy and—the kind of questions we’d ask ourselves.”

The administration appears to be trying to defend Israel’s right to self-defense in the face of a massacre that took the lives of 1,400 Israelis, while also trying to recover the hostages, get humanitarian aid into Gaza, and prevent U.S. ally Israel from committing war crimes in retaliation for the attack. It is also insisting there must be a long-term plan for Israel and the Palestinians. To that end, it is throwing its weight behind the long-neglected two-state solution. 

On October 27, U.S. Representative to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield echoed Biden’s statement that “there is no going back to the status quo as it stood on October 6th. We must not go back to the status quo where Hamas terrorizes Israel and uses Palestinian civilians as human shields,” she said. “And we must not go back to the status quo where extremist settlers can attack and terrorize Palestinians in the West Bank. The status quo is untenable and it is unacceptable.”

“[W]hen this crisis is over,” she said, “there has to be a vision of what comes next. In our view, that vision must be centered around a two-state solution. Getting there will require concerted efforts by all of us—Israelis, Palestinians, regional partners, and global leaders—to put us on a path for peace. To integrate Israel with the region, while insisting that the aspirations of the Palestinian people be part of a more hopeful future.”

The current crisis might have made that two-state solution more possible than it has been for a generation. Neither Hamas nor Netanyahu’s government supports a two-state solution, but other leaders in the region, including Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, say they do.

Hamas has little support outside of Iran, and up to 80% of Israelis blame Prime Minister Netanyahu for the October 7 attack. His leadership of a right-wing coalition has shielded him from corruption charges even as his attempts to gain more control over Israeli society sparked the largest protests in Israeli history, and there is no doubt the attack and his response to it have weakened him dramatically. At a news conference yesterday, a reporter asked if he would resign.

The recent peace talks in Egypt excluded Hamas, Iran, and Israel. Instead, the organizers invited Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestinian Authority that oversees the West Bank. President Biden, Secretary of State Blinken, and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan have been meeting with officials from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan. On Friday, Blinken will travel back to Israel to meet with officials there, after which he will make other stops in the region.