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Sunday Politics: Soleimani Fallout


NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins us now for a look at the politics around the attack. Good to talk to you, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good to talk to you, Sarah.

MCCAMMON: What does this attack mean for President Trump? He's said he doesn't want to get America involved in another war in the Middle East, but there is a lot of fear that he has ignited a fuse with this killing of the Iranian general.

LIASSON: Well, it's unclear what it means for President Trump. Remember, the way this all started was President Trump got rid of the Obama-era nuclear deal with Iran. He said that he could force Iran to agree to a better deal, so he started this policy of maximum economic pressure on Iran that has not forced Iran back to the negotiating table.

Instead, what it looks like is we're now in this escalating cycle of military provocation, and we don't know where it ends. The Bush and Obama administrations both decided against killing Qassem Soleimani because of the reaction from Iran that it could provoke. This is one man in a chain of command. It's not like you're decapitating a terrorist organization like killing al-Baghdadi. Soleimani is going to be replaced. Another general will carry out Iran's plans. And we don't know where all this is going.

MCCAMMON: Which gets us to the big question of timing. Why this attack now?

LIASSON: That's a good question. Some of the president's critics have said it was to distract people from the impeachment. That seems illogical. But on the other hand, it's just hard to see any logic in this. It's very confusing. Does the president want a war with Iran? He has said repeatedly he doesn't want a war with Iran. Does he know what he wants? Does he want to pull U.S. troops out of Iraq, which he has threatened to do on occasion?

We also had a confusing message from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who said Americans are now safer in the region because Soleimani is dead. At the same time, as you heard Jane Arraf said, U.S. citizens are being told to leave Iraq immediately.

MCCAMMON: Right. And yesterday, the White House formally notified Congress about the drone strike, as required by law. How are Democrats responding to the killing of Soleimani?

LIASSON: There have been a range of responses. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said that the document the White House sent Congress, quote, "raises serious and urgent questions about the timing, manner and justification of the attack." Some Democrats have questioned the legality of the attack, saying if this was an act of war, Congress should've been involved beforehand. But of course, Congress has been giving up its powers - war powers over the president for decades and decades.

Bernie Sanders, Democratic candidate for president, said this was a dangerous escalation. The Democratic candidate with the most foreign policy experience, former Vice President Joe Biden, who also was a former chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, issued a statement saying that no American should mourn Soleimani. In other words, he was a bad guy who killed a lot of Americans. But at the same time, he asked what is the long-range strategy and said that Donald Trump just threw a stick of dynamite into a tinderbox.

MCCAMMON: And Mara, sticking with the Democrats for a minute, the big political story this past week was fundraising numbers, right?

LIASSON: Fundraising numbers - together in this last quarter, all the Democratic candidates raised about double what the Trump campaign pulled in, and Donald Trump pulled in an eye-popping $46 million. So this shows that if the Democrats do unite after the primaries, they have a lot of grassroots enthusiasm to tap because, remember, back in 2012, the Republican candidates as a whole did not outraise President Obama at this time.

The biggest story inside the Democratic fundraising numbers is Bernie Sanders. He raised about $34 million. That was the most money any Democrat raised. He - the big question for Sanders is whether all of this money represents new Sanders supporters. In other words, his poll numbers haven't changed even as he rakes in the cash.

And one of the things this big hall has made Democrats do is sit up and take notice and think maybe they're having a failure of imagination about Bernie Sanders being the possible nominee. A lot of people have written him off. Republicans in 2016 had a failure of imagination around Donald Trump being the nominee. So Bernie Sanders - big winner in the fundraising hall for this quarter.

MCCAMMON: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Thanks so much.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.