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Trump advisers describe decision on attack

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — At the midway point of his annual Christmas vacation, President Donald Trump huddled at his Florida club with his top national security advisers. Days earlier, a rocket attack by an Iranian-funded group struck a U.S.-Iraqi base, killing an American contractor and wounding several others.

Trump’s advisers presented him with an array of options for responding, including the most dramatic possible response: taking out Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force and the man responsible for hundreds of Americans deaths.

Trump immediately wanted to target Soleimani. It was a decision his predecessors had avoided and one that risked inflaming tensions with Tehran. Some advisers voiced concern about the legal justification for a strike without evidence of an imminent attack in the works against Americans. So other options were discussed in the coming days with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Defense Secretary Mark Esper and national security adviser Robert O’Brien, including bombing the base of the group blamed for killing the U.S. contractor.

But Trump remained focused on the option to target Soleimani, a preference that surprised the small circle of aides because the president had long been reluctant to deepen U.S. military engagement around the world. By Thursday, officials believed they had intelligence indicating Soleimani was plotting against Americans, though it’s unclear when that intelligence became known to U.S. officials.

On Saturday, the White House sent Congress formal notification under the War Powers Act of the drone strike, said a senior administration official who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and requested anonymity. The notification, required by law within 48 hours of the introduction of American forces into an armed conflict or a situation that could lead to war, has to be signed and sent to Congress.

The document sent Saturday to congressional leadership, the House speaker and the Senate president pro tempore was entirely classified, according to a senior Democratic aide and a congressional aide who were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and requested anonymity. It was unclear whether any information would be made available in a public release.

Trump slipped out of a meeting with political advisers Thursday to give the final go-ahead. His decision to authorize the drone strike has sent shockwaves throughout the Middle East and dramatically escalated tensions between the U.S. and Iran.

It wasn’t the first time that Trump’s lush Mar-a-Lago resort, with its $200,000 annual membership and Atlantic Ocean vistas, had been the backdrop for a momentous national security decision.

In February 2017, Trump huddled on the patio with Japan’s Shinzo Abe, in full view of club members eating dinner, to weigh a response to a North Korean missile test. Two months later, Trump authorized a U.S. missile strike on Syria, then shared chocolate cake with China’s President Xi Jinping, who was visiting Mar-a-Lago for meetings.

Trump spent much of this vacation angry about the attack on the American contractor. He stayed largely out of sight in Florida, emerging only for rounds of golf at his other nearby club and mingling with guests at a New Year’s Eve party.

Wearing a tux, Trump was asked by a reporter if he foresaw a chance of war with Iran. Raising his voice to be heard over the holiday revelers, Trump said he wanted “to have peace.”

“And Iran should want peace more than anybody,” he said. “So I don’t see that happening. No, I don’t think Iran would want that to happen. It would go very quickly.”

He betrayed no indication of the momentous decision he was already weighing. More than a half-dozen administration officials, congressional staffers and advisers close to the White House described Trump’s decision-making. Most spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss private deliberations.

After Trump chose the option to take out Soleimani, national security officials debated about where the targeted strike should happen if they proceeded. Most did not want to attack Soleimani in Iraq, given the presence of U.S. troops there and the already tenuous situation on the ground. Some argued for the operation to occur when Soleimani was traveling in Lebanon or Syria. But when they learned Soleimani would be traveling to Baghdad on Jan. 2, they decided targeting him at the airport was their best opportunity.

Earlier that day, Trump was meeting with his political advisers about his reelection campaign when he was summoned to give the final go-ahead. Officials believed they had a legal justification and would cite intelligence suggesting that Soleimani was traveling in the Middle East to put final touches on plans for attacks that would have hit U.S. diplomats, soldiers and American facilities in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.

U.S. officials have not been more specific about the intelligence. A congressional aide briefed by the administration on Friday said officials offered compelling details about Iran’s intentions and capabilities, but not about the timing of the supposed attacks on Americans.

The deliberations and Trump’s final decision came quickly enough that in the hours before the attack Thursday night, contingency plans for a potential Iranian response were still being finalized. The White House communications team was not given a heads-up about the strike, leaving the staff scrambling as news of the explosion spread.

The president told one confidant after the attack that he wanted to deliver a warning to Iran not to mess with American assets. Trump said he was also eager to project global strength and replicate the message he believed he sent last year after approving the raid to kill Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi: the U.S. would find its enemies anywhere in the world.

Still, administration officials acknowledged that Soleimani’s killing carried a high risk of Iranian retaliation. The Pentagon is sending nearly 3,000 more Army troops to the Mideast and some troops are on standby to travel to Beirut if more security is needed at the American Embassy there.

Hundreds of soldiers deployed Saturday from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to Kuwait. A loading ramp was filled with combat gear and restless soldiers. Some tried to grab a last-minute nap on wooden benches. The wife of a member of the 82nd Airborne who deployed earlier this past week said his departure was so abrupt she didn’t have the chance to say goodbye in person or by phone. “The kids kept going, ‘When’s dad going to be home?’ ” said April Shumard, 42. “It’s literally thrown me for a loop. And him as well. He’s still in disbelief of where he’s gone. Our heads are spun.”

As Trump addressed the nation Friday for the first time after Soleimani’s killing, he declared that the Iranian general’s “reign of terror was over.”

“We took action last night to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war,” he said.

With speculation mounting about Iran’s response, Trump unleashed an ominous warning on Saturday, declaring that if Tehran struck back, the U.S. had already “targeted 52 Iranian sites (representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago), some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture.”

Trump did not identify the targets but added that they would be “HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD.”

People to Watch in 2020

By Randy Krehbiel • Tulsa World

Each January the Tulsa World highlights a group of people we think should be followed in the year ahead. They are people who are perhaps not well known to the general public but who will have key roles in the community.

In the past they’ve included entertainers, business leaders, social services directors, CEOs and rising athletes. This year we look at 10 people involved in a range of activities, from an Olympic wrestling hopeful to people on the front lines of criminal justice reform. They come from many walks of life and are engaged in many activities.

But each one is a person to watch in 2020.

Read more about this year’s People to Watch on pages A5-7.

Tulsa school board will hear plan to close four schools at Monday meeting

Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Deborah Gist will present most of her recommendations for slashing approximately $20 million from the 2020-21 budget at Monday night’s school board meeting.

Board members will hear Gist’s proposal to close four elementary schools and slightly increase elementary class sizes as part of an effort to avoid a budget deficit next year.

They will not hear the recommendation containing the majority of the potential cuts, which involve reducing district office services and would save the district an estimated $13 million to $14 million. Reductions include operational efficiencies, as well as the creation and deletion of unspecified positions. Although the cuts would affect every district office team, Gist has said most of them are not personnel-related.

The recommendation targeting the district office likely won’t be presented until at least February. Most details about the positions and services being affected have not been released. District officials say they’re withholding the information to give them time to engage directly with affected staff members.

The rest of the superintendent’s proposal will be outlined in Monday’s meeting. The board is expected to vote on these recommendations at its next board meeting in two weeks.

A recommendation to change the elementary staffing plan reportedly would save about $3 million by basing allocations for general education teachers on schoolwide enrollment instead of grade-level ranges and increase the staffing ratio to 24-to-1 from 23-to-1.

This would bring the average elementary class size from 23 students to 24. Gist said 53% of classes would have fewer than 24 students, compared to 67% currently.

The proposal also seeks to close four elementary schools to save approximately $2 million to $3 million. Jones, Grimes and Wright would send their students to nearby schools next year, while Mark Twain would be consolidated into Wayman Tisdale Fine Arts Academy.

Gist has said the district would work one-on-one with affected teachers to help them find other opportunities within TPS.

Each school closure is listed as its own recommendation in the meeting agenda, meaning the board will vote on them individually.

The agenda describes the rationale for closing Wright, Mark Twain and Grimes by examining their low enrollment and low capacity utilization. Wright Elementary, for instance, has 225 students in prekindergarten through fifth grade, resulting in the school using 36% of its enrollment capacity.

“Schools that are unsustainably small result in students having less opportunity for small class sizes and less access to arts and wellness offerings,” the agenda states.

“At unsustainably small schools, the staff also have less access to professional learning opportunities. From a financial stewardship perspective, schools with less than 350 students also cost roughly $1,100 more per student in terms of school-level spending.”

Students who would have attended pre-K through fifth grade at Wright next year would attend Eliot Elementary or Patrick Henry Elementary, depending on where they live. The deaf-education program at Wright would move to Patrick Henry, according to the recommendation.

Students at Grimes would attend Carnegie or Key, depending on their residence, if the recommendation is approved.

Unlike the other schools recommended for closure, Jones Elementary is overcapacity and relies on portable trailers to house students.

“It is a facility that needs substantial upgrading and improvements to serve the needs of its students, but does not have adequate land or a physical structure to accommodate the necessary renovations without exorbitant cost to the district,” the agenda says.

Students at Jones would attend MacArthur, Lindbergh or Bell in 2020-21.

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