Trump — unbridled yet uneasy — faces Iran test of his own making

Trump — unbridled yet uneasy — faces Iran test of his own making

Trump — unbridled yet uneasy — faces Iran test of his own making

For nearly an hour, Trump delivered what one official described as an “extended outburst,” railing against the Iran deal and the aides trying to block him from tearing up the agreement. Then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary James Mattis and national security adviser H.R. McMaster unanimously urged him not to blow up the deal, warning of the fallout.

Two years later, none of those advisers remain and the President has long since abandoned the Iran deal.

Having shed the most tenacious restraints on his hardline and sometimes reckless foreign policy inclinations, Trump has felt liberated to pursue a foreign policy agenda on Iran and other global hotspots that hews more closely to his muscular vision of US power.

But without a clear long-term strategy driving those actions, his current national security adviser, John Bolton, and other Iran hawks in the administration have found themselves in the driver’s seat, pushing the US and Iran closer to a breaking point.

And the President who bemoaned the guardrails that checked him at every impulse-driven bend — including a coterie of generals whose views of war were shaped by their own military experiences — now finds himself unbridled and uneasy.

Trump denied on Friday that anyone aside from him was making decisions on behalf of the administration. He also insisted there were no lingering frustrations at the team that is now crafting his foreign policy.

“I’m not angry, I make my own decisions,” the President said at a conference of realtors. “(Secretary of State) Mike Pompeo is doing a great job. Bolton is doing a great job.”

It was a cheery view, and one that officials say hasn’t always prevailed as Trump confronts new intelligence showing Iran placing missiles on boats in the Persian Gulf, leading to fears the country could attack US troops in the region.

Forceful response

The circle of advisers who now surround Trump have executed a forceful response to the intelligence — one that current and former officials say hasn’t necessarily jibed with the President’s own instincts.

“We’ve gone from folks who are pushing back on the President and kind of trying to restrain some of his more aggressive tendencies to folks who are actually forcing the President to push back on them and having the President restrain their aggressive tendencies,” said Fernando Cutz, a former senior adviser to McMaster. “The moderate in the room right now is actually the President.”

Trump indicated as much during an impromptu news conference in the Oval Office last week.

“I actually temper John, which is pretty amazing, isn’t it?” he said to laughter. “I’m the one that tempers him, but that’s OK. I have different sides. I mean I have John Bolton and I have other people that are a little more dove-ish than him. And ultimately I make the decision.”

Amid reports that Bolton had ordered updated contingency plans for an Iranian attack that would send as many as 120,000 US troops to the Middle East and US intelligence indicating a heightened threat of attack from Iran, Trump on Thursday headed for a diplomatic off-ramp, making clear to top aides that he does not want a war with Iran and signaling publicly to the Iranians that he is ready to talk.

Multiple current and former administration officials say that while Trump has pushed for a more hardline approach to Iran — tearing apart the nuclear deal and reimposing a slew of sanctions — he is not gunning for a hot war with the country. Instead, he has hoped that increased economic pressure would draw Iran back to the negotiating table to craft a stiffer nuclear agreement.

But few experts believe the President’s unilateral pressure will push Iran back to the negotiating table and Trump has not gamed out a path to achieving that aim, other than to keep sanctioning Iran.

“There’s not been a tendency toward thinking long-range. That’s the part that’s concerning. You just kind of move from one trash can fire to another trash can fire,” one former senior administration official said.

Bolton, on the other hand, has for years made clear that he supports regime change in Iran and has even — as a private citizen — called for military action against the country. In 2015, he wrote a New York Times op-ed titled “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran,” arguing that “a strike can still succeed.”

While Trump was aware of Bolton’s hawkish instincts when he hired him, he had promised the President that he wouldn’t “start any wars” and would serve Trump’s agenda. But the shrewd and sharp-elbowed bureaucratic infighter has worked every angle to drive his aims on Iran.

Bolton’s defenders argue that while he has long-held views on Iran, he is deferential to the President’s views. And they insist Bolton is not pushing Trump to go to war with Iran.

“(Bolton) has made it very clear that he is a member of the President’s team and carries out the President’s foreign policy,” said Fred Fleitz, Bolton’s former chief of staff. “This idea he might not be or might be carrying out policies the President doesn’t approve of is just absolutely false.”

A senior administration official offered a similar defense, and added: “Herding Trump down any path is an unsuccessful strategy.”

The generals are gone

Beyond Bolton’s presence, some of the most persistent checks on the President’s bull-in-a-china-shop approach to foreign policy have not only left but have been replaced by advisers with less foreign policy experience or drive to contain Trump’s impulses.

Mattis, McMaster, Tillerson and then-White House chief of staff John Kelly frequently found themselves pushing back on what they considered a mercurial President’s reckless impulses on the world stage — part of the reason those men fell from his favor. If they couldn’t convince Trump to back off a position, they slow-walked his orders, hoping he would forget about the matter or that they could convince him to change course at a later date.

That dynamic — which is one of Trump’s most reliable frustrations — was exposed in sharp relief in special counsel Robert Mueller’s report, which depicted numerous aides ignoring or skirting the President’s demands to short-circuit the probe into Russian election interference. Similar scenarios have played out on matters of trade and foreign policy as advisers work to prevent what they believe are rash or damaging actions.

As Trump mulled the merits of launching a limited military strike against North Korea in early 2018, he took the provocative step of ordering the evacuation of military families in South Korea — a move Mattis and other top national security officials feared could send a signal that the US was on a war footing.

As McMaster directed his National Security Council staff to begin drafting the order, Mattis worked with Kelly to dissuade the President, ultimately convincing him to issue a scaled-down directive barring military personnel in South Korea from bringing their families during future tours.

That memo was also never implemented — one of many presidential directives Mattis slow-walked with the hope that Trump would forget about them and move on.

Mattis, though, hit a final wall at the end of last year as the President moved to pull US troops from Syria, blindsiding his advisers. After failing to convince Trump to rethink his approach, Mattis resigned.

Replacing Kelly, a retired four-star Marine Corps general, is acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, a conservative former congressman who has sought to influence the administration’s domestic policy agenda but has otherwise left Trump unfettered.

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan — a former Boeing executive — has so far approached his position as that of a company executive working to implement the chief executive’s orders — a marked shift from Mattis’ approach.

Sources close to Trump said that’s why he formally nominated Shanahan earlier this month to take over the position, believing Shanahan won’t push any particular policy agenda on him.

CNN’s Zachary Cohen contributed to this report.

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Eurovision faces backlash as musical kitschfest hits Israel

Eurovision faces backlash as musical kitschfest hits Israel

Eurovision faces backlash as musical kitschfest hits Israel

But this year’s competition isn’t making headlines because of a voting irregularity, an on-stage outrage or an obscure rules infraction. The issue is the location of the event itself.

Last year, the contest — which pits singers and bands from different countries against each other in a week-long competition culminating in a spectacular live final — was won by a quirky singer called Netta Barzilai, representing Israel (despite the title, entries are not restricted to European nations).

And because the winning nation gets to host the following year’s contest, this year the Eurovision caravan has pitched up in Tel Aviv.

The nature of the controversy is clear on landing at Ben Gurion Airport. Signs welcoming visitors to the contest are followed on the road into the city by a billboard protesting against Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

The rival messages underline the contrast between Israel’s sunny Mediterranean beaches and the concrete wall and checkpoints that run along parts of the border with the West Bank. It is an attempt to remind visitors that just a short drive away is an ongoing, and intractable, conflict.

Israelis hold slogans during a protest against Eurovision on May 14 in Tel Aviv.

Israel seeks tourism boost

Eurovision is best known for its glitzy costumes, quirky performances, and national pride. Despite its well-honed message that the event is above politics, the big issue of the day almost always casts its shadow.

In 2003, UK entry Jemini received no points from a combination of expert juries and members of the public in each of the other countries amid a backlash over the US-led invasion of Iraq that was backed by British forces. And 11 years later, Russian contestants the Tolmachevy Sisters were booed in what was perceived to be a protest over Moscow’s actions in Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea and its suppression of LGBT rights.

This year is no exception.

Israel is using the Eurovision song competition as a way to brand itself as a fun, sunny holiday break for tourists. It’s part of the country’s larger effort to promote itself not only as a place for religious and historical tourism, but also for its beaches, food scene and high-tech startups.

Celebrities criticize proposed boycott of Eurovision over Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Israel has poured millions of dollars into the event, which it last hosted in 1999. The competition is taking place at Expo Tel Aviv, while across the city satellite events, performances and festivals are taking place all week long.

Nearly 200 million people are expected to tune in to watch the final on Saturday. The televised week-long competition pits 41 countries’ contestants against each other in a series of rounds. Half of a contestant’s final standing is determined by a jury, while the other half comes from a public vote.

Politics and controversy, as well as security concerns, have threatened to overshadow the competition, especially after a flare-up last week of violence between militants in Gaza, who fired nearly 700 rockets into the country, and the Israeli Army, which responded with more than 300 airstrikes.

Four people in Israel and more than 20 people in Gaza were killed in the two days of fighting, before mediators managed to restore a ceasefire, all of it coinciding with the start of the Eurovision rehearsals.

People inspect  damage at a house in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba on May 5, 2019, after it was hit in a rocket strike from Gaza.

Activists in the country are keen to take advantage of the world spotlight, calling for boycotts of the event over Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

“Breaking the Silence,” an organization started by former soldiers which wants to see Israel withdraw from Palestinian territories, paid for the billboard along the highway.

“We want people to come that first of all come and see the bigger picture — to enjoy Israel, to enjoy Tel Aviv, but also open their eyes to the fact we occupy millions of people against their will,” the group’s communications director Achiya Schatz told CNN. “For us, if you want to build bridges through music, you need to take apart walls that are being built by occupation.”

On Tuesday evening as thousands flocked to the Tel Aviv beaches for free performances and a food festival, around 150 protesters took part in a short march calling on Israel to end its actions in Gaza.

“The eyes of Europe are on us, so we want to use it to hold up Europe see what happens in Gaza, and do something about it,” said one of the protesters, Mattan Helman. “We want them to stop the party, to come with us, to work together and to see that there is another thing that happens 100km from them — to see the lives to understand that this is also part of their life, because they affect each other. The life in Gaza affects the life in Israel, and the life in Israel affects the life in Gaza.”

Iceland's Hatari performs the song "Hatrið mun sigra" during the first Eurovision semi-final at Expo Tel Aviv on May 14, 2019.

But for most people in Tel Aviv the focus is on the festive atmosphere and the opportunity to show that Tel Aviv can successfully host a major international event.

At the Eurovision fan village along the beach, locals and visitors alike said they were impressed by the event.

“We’re celebrating Eurovision, celebrating freedom, celebrating good music,” said Yanit Azulin as she danced with friends. “The vibe is great, it’s enormous, it’s amazing. I’m very glad that we are here celebrating.”

Typically the Eurovision finale does not feature any celebrity performances. But this year Madonna is slated to perform two songs at the grand finale.
Madonna vows to sing at Eurovision, despite calls for boycott

Despite calls for her to boycott the event, Madonna said in a statement she will “never stop playing music to suit someone’s political agenda nor will I stop speaking out against violations of human rights wherever in the world they may be.”

“My heart breaks every time I hear about the innocent lives that are lost in this region and the violence that is so often perpetuated to suit the political goals of people who benefit from this ancient conflict. I hope and pray that we will soon break free from this terrible cycle of destruction and create a new path towards peace,” the statement continued.

10 things to know before visiting Israel, the West Bank and Gaza

Protests also came from religious Ultra-Orthodox Jews in the country, angered that the contest requires people to work and perform during the Sabbath which occurs from sundown on Fridays until sundown on Saturday (though the finale should begin after sundown on Saturday). Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had to explain the government did not control the Eurovision competition to one of the political parties he is trying to form a coalition with, after they expressed dismay about the competition’s timing.

“Most of the participants in the event are from abroad and not Jewish,” Netanyahu wrote, according to the Jerusalem Post.

Netta Barzilai, the reigning Eurovision champion whose winning song “Toy” brought the competition to Israel, has been promoting the event as a way to bring a positive message to the world.

“It’s insane to bring so much blessing over here. And we are thrilled for people to discover Israel again and to see amazing people we are, and how warm we are accepting everyone. It’s going to be a party,” Barzilai said at a news conference ahead of the semi-finals. “From all these countries, all these cultures are bound together, this is a festival of light.”

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German nurse who killed up to 100 patients faces another life sentence

German nurse who killed up to 100 patients faces another life sentence

German nurse who killed up to 100 patients faces another life sentence

Lead prosecutor Martin Koziolek told CNN that 42-year-old Hoegel is suspected of taking that many lives, but there is evidence for only 97 murders.

In the three remaining cases, Koziolek said there may have been medical manipulations — but they are not believed to have directly led to the death of the patients.

Last year, Hoegel was charged with the deaths of 97 people. On his first day of trial in October 2018, Hoegel confessed that he killed his patients — ranging in age between 34 and 96 — at two hospitals in northern Germany between 2000 and 2005.

The former nurse is already serving a life sentence for six convictions, including homicide and attempted homicide in 2008 and 2015. Those convictions led authorities to investigate hundreds of deaths and exhume the bodies of former patients in the clinics where he worked.

Hoegel is accused of giving his victims various non-prescribed drugs, in an attempt to show off his resuscitation skills to colleagues and fight off boredom.

Prosecutors said Hoegel should have been aware that the drugs he gave to patients at hospitals in Delmenhorst and Oldenburg, in northwest Germany, could cause life-threatening cardiac problems.

In past hearings, Hoegel said he felt euphoric when he managed to bring a patient back to life, and devastated when he failed.

About 126 relatives of the victims are co-plaintiffs in the trial, which is expected to run until June this year, the prosecutor told CNN.

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