Thursday Reads

Good Morning!!

U.S. President Joe Biden's first address to a joint session of Congress

Michael Reynolds/Pool via REUTERS

Last night President Biden gave his first speech to a joint session of Congress. For the first time, two women sat behind the president, Vice President Kamala Harris and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. A couple of reactions to the speech:

Philip Bump at The Washington Post: In his first speech to Congress, Biden rejects autocracy — including from Trump.

There were two moments during President Biden’s address to the nation on Wednesday in which he obviously, if only indirectly, referred to the man who preceded him in his position.

The first came near the beginning.

“America is rising anew,” Biden said, “choosing hope over fear, truth over lies, and light over darkness.”

Only the second of those three pairings is immediately and obviously about Donald Trump; the former president’s indifference to accuracy is unparalleled. But by stringing the three together, Biden was similarly positioning Trump as the target of the other pejoratives. America under Trump, he’s saying, was a place of fear, dishonesty and darkness. That tracks with Biden’s past rhetoric and, frankly, Trump’s own: Biden warned the country last autumn that a dark winter was coming because of the pandemic (and Trump’s leadership failures), and Trump himself made fear a central part of his reelection bid.\But now, Biden argued on Wednesday night, all of that was swept aside.

“After 100 days of rescue and renewal, America is ready for takeoff, in my view,” he said. “We’re working again, dreaming again, discovering again and leading the world again. We have shown each other and the world that there’s no quit in America.”

From there, Biden turned his attention to an exhaustive list of policy priorities, one that, in its own way, differentiated his speech from any of Trump’s. Not only were his proposals robust and detailed in a way that was never Trump’s style, they were also progressive in a way that no Republican’s would be. It was an obvious difference and, of course, the most important one in terms of governance.

But it was also a reminder that Biden always ran on being a president who just sort of quietly went about presidenting, a promise that he has fulfilled in spades.

A CNN poll found that public reaction to the speech was positive: CNN Poll: 7 in 10 who watched say Biden’s speech left them feeling optimistic.

About half of Americans who watched President Joe Biden’s address to Congress had a very positive reaction to the speech, and 71% said they walked away feeling more optimistic about the country’s direction, according to a CNN Poll conducted by SSRS.

E0Gxo1TVEAQFpzCBy a wide margin, speech-watchers said that Biden’s policy proposals would move the country in the right direction (73%) rather than the wrong direction (27%). In a survey conducted before the speech, the same people were a bit less bullish that Biden would lead in the right direction (67% right direction, 33% wrong direction), and that movement came from the independents and Republicans who watched the speech. Among Republicans, the share saying Biden’s policies would move the country in the right direction grew from 13% pre-speech to 27% post-speech, while among independents, that percentage rose from 61% to 73%.

That perception carries through to the major issues covered in the speech. More than 8 in 10 said Biden’s proposals on the coronavirus pandemic would move in the right direction (86%), and 74% said the same about racial injustice. Around 7 in 10 said the President’s policies on the economy (72%), gun laws (70%) and taxes (70%) were steps in the right direction. Slightly fewer said the same about immigration (65%).

And Biden’s focus on those issues appeared to hit the right mark for speech-watchers. Overall, 68% said Biden has had the right priorities so far as president, while 32% said he has not paid enough attention to the most important problems.

The other big news yesterday was that Rudy Giuliani’s home and office were searched by Federal agents. Some reactions:

From The Week, via Yahoo News: Federal investigators search Giuliani’s home and office, and experts say it means he’s in real trouble.

Federal investigators searched Rudy Giuliani’s home and office in Manhattan on Wednesday, executing search warrants as part of an investigation into his business dealings in Ukraine, reports The New York Times.

The former New York City mayor and personal lawyer to former President Donald Trump is being investigated over possible illegal lobbying on behalf of Ukrainian officials and his efforts to dig up dirt on Trump’s political rivals. “Executing a search warrant is an extraordinary move for prosecutors to take against a lawyer, let alone a lawyer for a former president,” writes the Times. “While the warrants are not an explicit accusation of wrongdoing against Mr. Giuliani, it shows that the investigation has entered an aggressive new phase.”

e9oxrHhCExperts agreed the search represented very serious stakes for Giuliani. Former U.S. attorney Harry Litman wrote that “this means that a magistrate judge has found probable cause to believe that [Giuliani’s actions in Ukraine] were criminal.” As the Times writes, “to obtain a search warrant, investigators need to persuade a judge they have sufficient reason to believe that a crime was committed and that the search would turn up evidence of the crime.”

Federal prosecutor and legal analyst Shanlon Wu called the search an “extraordinary step,” and wrote that “no amount of hot air and ranting is going to help Rudy Giuliani now.”

Litman continued: “I don’t know offhand the percentage of people whose [apartments] are searched by warrant who are then indicted … but it’s high, and given Giuliani’s profile, it has to be higher [because] they would be more careful and get lots of approvals.”

The search warrant was reportedly a long time coming, and politics may have slowed it down. The process was delayed for the presidential election so as not to sway voters, and Trump appointees at the DOJ reportedly managed to temporarily block the warrant while Trump was still in office.

Former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara agrees. Benjamin Hart at New York Magazine: Preet Bharara Thinks Rudy Giuliani Is in ‘Deep Trouble.’

I spoke with Preet Bharara, who served as the U.S. Attorney for the district from 2009 to 2017 — and whose podcast, Stay Tuned, was recently acquired by Vox Media — about Giuliani’s predicament and where the investigation might go next.

28d18330dd2ee5d27239b46eb62eb5ebc5633101How significant is this move by the Feds from your perspective? How much legal danger does Giuliani face here?
I think it’s extremely significant. I’m not one to say that when routine subpoenas are issued or interviews are conducted, but here you have a very prominent person — not just the former lawyer to the president of the United States but also the former U.S. Attorney of the office that’s involved in the investigation. The fact that you execute a warrant on someone’s residence does not necessarily mean there will be a charge, but given the circumstances, given the identity of Mr. Giuliani, given what you have to show to get a judge to authorize the warrant and the search — that’s a sign that he’s in deep trouble. We saw this play out with respect to Michael Cohen and to Paul Manafort. Very prominent targets, very sensitive cases. Both of those men were charged.

The two people you just cited also both went to prison. Is that where this could be going?

I used to head that office, and there are search warrants that get executed on people’s premises and their offices, and no charges follow. That happens, and Giuliani is presumed to be innocent. But what’s likely is that there has already been substantial investigation. The reporting was that they tried to execute these searches when Trump was in office, and they were stymied by higher-ups in the Justice Department. Bear in mind, they’re probably far along, given what showing they have to make of probable cause to do these searches in the first place. They likely already have a lot of Rudy Giuliani’s communications. You don’t need to have his devices in your possession to have email records; those are obtained from third parties, and they probably have all of that. It’s anyone’s guess what the charges will be and when they will come. But in my experience, when you do something like this, that you know will have a reputational effect on the subject, you’re usually thinking there’s a good likelihood of a charge.

It hasn’t been as widely reported, but it’s also significant that the Feds searched the home of another Trump-associated attorney, Victoria Toensing. Nicholas Reimann at Forbes: Feds Search Giuliani’s, Toensing’s Properties As Part Of Ukraine Investigation.

Federal investigators searched Rudy Giuliani’s Manhattan apartment on Wednesday and later searched the home of attorney Victoria Toensing as part of a probe into whether Giuliani acted on behalf of Ukrainian oligarchs to illegally lobby the Trump Administration, according to multiple reports, with investigators said to have seized electronic devices.

A bit more from The New York Times

26dc-Digenova-superJumbo-v2F.B.I. agents also executed a search warrant on Wednesday morning at the Washington-area home of Victoria Toensing, a lawyer close to Mr. Giuliani who had dealings with several Ukrainians involved in the hunt for information on the Bidens, according to people with knowledge of that warrant. The warrant was for her cellphone.

Ms. Toensing, a former Justice Department official, has also represented Dmitry Firtash, a Ukrainian oligarch under indictment in the United States whose help Mr. Giuliani sought.

More stories to check out:

Susan Glasser at The New Yorker: Biden’s Speech Offers an Alternate Reality for Democrats to Love, After Four Years of Trumpian Fantasy.

Wall Street Journal: Stocks Are Off to Best Start to a Presidential Term Since Great Depression.

Newsweek: Rudy Giuliani Voicemail Hints at Cause of Federal Search Warrant.

The Los Angeles Times: FBI director says Capitol riot was ‘domestic terrorism.’

The Washington Post: Trump supporter found guilty of threatening to kill members of Congress after Jan. 6 insurrection.

Politico: Trump’s Battle to Win the First 100 Days.

CNN: US investigating possible mysterious directed energy attack near White House.

Minneapolis Star Tribune: Feds plan to indict Chauvin, other three ex-officers on civil rights charges.

CBS News: In India, a scramble for scarce vaccines as COVID deaths top 200,000.

CNN: India’s Covid-19 crisis is a problem for the world.

That’s it for me today. What’s on your mind?


Wednesday Inauguration Reads: Finally!

Yes! The day is finally here…

See you at 12 noon…

Until then:

This is an open thread.


Tuesday Reads: Goodbye and Good Riddance!

Good Afternoon!!

Our long national nightmare is almost over. Tomorrow morning Trump will leave the White House for the last time with the blood of 400,000 dead Americans on his hands.

Trump’s horrific “legacy” includes his “Muslim ban,” the separation of thousands of immigrant children from their parents, his effort to build a ridiculous wall on the Southern border, the violation of long-held government norms, his active promotion of racism, sexism, and xenophobia, his corrupt use of his office to enrich himself, his efforts to weaken NATO and our most important foreign alliances while expressing support for foreign dictators, his multiple attempts to interfere with the 2020 election, and most recently his active promotion of an attempted coup to overthrow the election results and stay on as a dictator.

For an expert take on the Trump legacy, check out this BBC article: US historians on what Donald Trump’s legacy will be.

Stephen Collinson at CNN: Trump’s legacy will take years to purge from the American psyche.

After four exhausting years of raging tweets, lies, “fire and fury” rants and orders for far-right extremists to “stand back and stand by,” it’s almost over.

Donald Trump’s presidency is ending in a riot of division, discord and disgrace that encapsulates the pandemonium of his single term that culminated in him inciting an insurrection against Congress and a legacy that will take years to purge from the American psyche.

Trump is expected to unfurl a new list of pardons, including for white-collar criminals and celebrity rappers, in his last full day in office Tuesday that is likely to reflect the self-dealing contempt for justice that was a dominant theme of his tumultuous term. And there are sure to be more political traps for Joe Biden’s incoming administration on his way out the door.

20210111edstc-aThe very experience of being alive in America will change at noon on Wednesday when the mandate expires of the loudest, most disruptive and erratic commander in chief in history — who forced himself into every corner of life on his social media feed and constant craving for the spotlight.

Millions of Americans who viewed the twice-impeached Trump’s assaults on decency and the rule of law with shame and alarm will finally be able to breathe easily again, liberated from his strongman’s shadow. Biden will be a President who seeks to unify an internally estranged nation in contrast to Trump’s obsession with ripping at its social, racial and cultural fault lines to cement his power. Trump’s cynical weaponizing of race reemerged on Monday when his White House chose the national holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr. to issue a commission report that minimizes slavery and insults the modern civil rights movement.

But this is only one view of Trump. The 74 million Americans who voted to reward him with a second term saw him as a leader who voiced their anger at political, business and media elites. Trump channeled their belief that an increasingly diverse and socially liberal nation threatened their values, religion, gun rights and cultural heritage. His exit could trigger volatile political forces among a community that will mourn his White House. The continued devotion of Trump’s loyal base voters means that while Biden can wipe out many of the outgoing President’s policy wins, removing his influence from politics may well be impossible.

There can be little doubt that Trump is by far the worst president in U.S. history. Tim Naftali at The Atlantic: The Worst President in History. Three particular failures secure Trump’s status as the worst chief executive ever to hold the office.

President Donald Trump has long exulted in superlatives. The first. The best. The most. The greatest. “No president has ever done what I’ve done,” he boasts. “No president has ever even come close,” he says. But as his four years in office draw to an end, there’s only one title to which he can lay claim: Donald Trump is the worst president America has ever had.

In December 2019, he became the third president to be impeached. Last week, Trump entered a category all his own, becoming the first president to be impeached twice. But impeachment, which depends in part on the makeup of Congress, is not the most objective standard. What does being the worst president actually mean? And is there even any value, at the bitter end of a bad presidency, in spending energy on judging a pageant of failed presidencies?

lk011521daprIt is helpful to think of the responsibilities of a president in terms of the two elements of the oath of office set forth in the Constitution. In the first part, presidents swear to “faithfully execute the Office of the President of the United States.” This is a pledge to properly perform the three jobs the presidency combines into one: head of state, head of government, and commander in chief. In the second part, they promise to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

Trump was a serial violator of his oath—as evidenced by his continual use of his office for personal financial gain—but focusing on three crucial ways in which he betrayed it helps clarify his singular historical status. First, he failed to put the national-security interests of the United States ahead of his own political needs. Second, in the face of a devastating pandemic, he was grossly derelict, unable or unwilling to marshal the requisite resources to save lives while actively encouraging public behavior that spread the disease. And third, held to account by voters for his failures, he refused to concede defeat and instead instigated an insurrection, stirring a mob that stormed the Capitol.

Read the rest at The Atlantic.

Trump has also perverted the presidential pardon process, and he is expected spend today issuing as many as 100, largely corrupt pardons. That link is to the NYT story that details many of the planned pardons. This is from Vanity Fair: Trump’s Last Power Grab Will Involve Around 100 Pardons in Massive “Influence Peddling” Operation.

Tuesday’s list, which was reportedly finalized during a White House meeting on Sunday, will likely be the final pardoning spree of Trump’s tenure and is not expected to include the president himself; advisers have urged Trump not to issue a self-pardon because it would imply guilt, CNN reports. Advisers close to the president have apparently also encouraged him not to grant clemency to anyone involved in the insurrection, a move Senator Lindsey Graham, a longtime loyalist, warned against during a Fox News interview Sunday, saying he thinks pardoning Capitol rioters “would destroy” Trump. Instead, allies expect Trump to grant clemency to those who could benefit him after leaving office. “Everything is a transaction. He likes pardons because it is unilateral. And he likes doing favors for people he thinks will owe him,” one source told CNN.

Criminals have been clamoring at Trump’s heels to achieve exactly this result, one well-connected lobbyists helped facilitate—some for a hefty price. Trump associates have apparently tried to monetize their access to the outgoing administration by selling pardons, or the hope of them, to convicted felons seeking clemency, with some allies bringing in tens of thousands of dollars to promote their clients’ position to the White House in recent weeks, the New York Times reported Sunday. The lucrative pardon lobbying reportedly ramped up as Trump’s chances of overturning the election became more and more distant, and people seeking pardons or commutations turned to fixers advertising their clout within the administration for last-minute reprieves. Since November, at least 10 convicted criminals have retained lobbyists whose described services include “pardon,” “commutation,” or “clemency,” according to Axios.

lk011421daprTrump’s final insult is his refusal to participate in the passing of power to his successor. That said, most of us are glad he won’t be there to ruin the day for the Biden and Harris families. Kate Bennett at CNN: Trumps’ snub of Bidens historic in its magnitude

The dissolving of one of America’s most enduring transfer-of-power rituals — the outgoing president welcoming the incoming president on the steps of the North Portico, and then riding with them to the United States Capitol — is just one of the snubs the Trumps are perpetrating as they leave Washington.

Instead of a president and first lady, the Bidens will be greeted by the White House chief usher Timothy Harleth, according to a source familiar with the day’s events and planning. Harleth, a 2017 Trump hire from the Trump International Hotel in Washington, will likely not stay on in the Biden administration, the source said, noting the role of chief usher in all probability will be filled by someone more familiar with the incoming president and first lady.

The afternoon of Inauguration Day, then-President Biden will participate in a ceremonial wreath-laying at Arlington National Cemetery, joined by former Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. It is during these hours the bulk of the Bidens’ personal effects will be moved into the White House and unpacked, according to another source with knowledge of executive residence practices.

By that time, all Trump paraphernalia will be gone, and a thorough top-to-bottom cleaning of the entire White House campus will have been completed. Deeper cleaning protocols were arranged via the White House with outside contractors, on top of regular cleaning done by staff, including specialized attention to rugs, carpets, curtains and surfaces, to tackle any possibility of lingering germs, of the Covid-19 sort or otherwise.

“Moving furniture and vacuuming, cleaning baseboards, vacuuming drapes, wiping down shades, cleaning chandeliers, washing windows, high dusting,” are areas all covered during the traditional move-in of a new president and his family, according to the residence source. “That cleaning will start as soon as Donald Trump and Melania Trump depart.”

2_HU-showtime-Band_-JKnight__Today, the Senate is holding hearings on some of Biden’s cabinet appointments. Axios has a list of the hearings scheduled for today:

Jan. 19:

  • 10 am: Alejandro Mayorkas, nominee for secretary of homeland security nominee, before the Senate Homeland Committee.
  • 10 am: Avril Haines, nominee for director of national intelligence, before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
  • 10 am: Janet Yellen, nominee for treasury secretary, before the Senate Finance Committee.
  • 2 pm: Antony Blinken, nominee for secretary of state, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
  • 3 pm: Retired Gen. Lloyd Austin, nominee for defense secretary, before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The Washington Post on Janet Yellen’s appearance: Janet Yellen urges lawmakers to ‘act big’ on economic stimulus relief at Senate confirmation hearing.

Janet Yellen, President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee for treasury secretary, urged lawmakers Tuesday to “act big” on economic relief for the coronavirus pandemic as she appeared before a Senate committee for her confirmation hearing.

“I think there is a consensus now: Without further action, we risk a longer, more painful recession now — and long-term scarring of the economy later,” Yellen said in written testimony submitted to the Senate Finance Committee ahead of the hearing.

She faced immediate pushback from Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who used his opening statement to slam the Biden relief plan as a “laundry list of liberal structural economic reforms” that would not be appropriate to enact.

Yellen, 74, spent years as a professor before entering politics as head of President Bill Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers in the late 1990s. She chaired the Federal Reserve from 2014 to 2018, playing a key role in the economic recovery from the Great Recession with a studied approach that helped push down the unemployment rate over time. President Trump broke with tradition when he opted not to reappoint her to the top Fed job.

I’m still bracing for Trump to pull something in his remaining hours, but it’s such a relieve to know that we’ll soon be rid of him and his trailer trash family. It will be wonderful to have a normal person in the White House again. 


Tuesday Reads: Trump’s “Autocratic Attempt”

Good Morning!!

Benito Mussolini

Benito Mussolini

The U.S. is going through a very dangerous time. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have been elected decisively, but Trump and his GOP cult followers are trying to overthrow the election results. They are, in fact, attempting a coup.

Masha Gessen at The New Yorker, November 5: By Declaring Victory, Donald Trump Is Attempting an Autocratic Breakthrough.

The President of the United States has called the election a fraud. He has declared victory without basis, tweeting on Wednesday, “We have claimed” Pennsylvania, Georgia, North Carolina, and perhaps Michigan—all states that were still counting votes. Donald Trump, who has been engaged in an autocratic attempt for the last four years, is now trying to stage an autocratic breakthrough.

I have borrowed the term “autocratic attempt” from the work of Bálint Magyar, a Hungarian sociologist who set out to develop analytical tools for understanding the turn away from democracy in many Eastern and Central European countries. I have found Magyar’s ideas surprisingly illuminating when applied to the United States.

Magyar divides the autocrat’s journey into three stages: autocratic attempt, autocratic breakthrough, and autocratic consolidation. The attempt is a period when autocracy is still preventable, or reversible, by electoral means. When it is no longer possible to reverse autocracy peacefully, the autocratic breakthrough has occurred, because the very structures of government have been transformed and can no longer protect themselves. These changes usually include packing the constitutional court (the Supreme Court, in the case of the U.S.) with judges loyal to the autocrat; packing and weakening the courts in general; appointing a chief prosecutor (the Attorney General) who is loyal to the autocrat and will enforce the law selectively on his behalf; changing the rules on the appointment of civil servants; weakening local governments; unilaterally changing electoral rules (to accommodate gerrymandering, for instance); and changing the Constitution to expand the powers of the executive.

Josef Stalin

Josef Stalin

For all the apparent flailing and incompetence of the Trump Administration, his autocratic attempt checks most of the boxes. He has appointed three Supreme Court Justices and a record number of federal judges. The Justice Department, under William Barr, acts like Trump’s pocket law-enforcement agency and personal law firm. Trump’s army of “acting” officials, some of them carrying out their duties in violation of relevant federal regulations, have made mincemeat of the rules and norms of federal appointments. Trump has preëmptively declared the election rigged; has incited voter intimidation and encouraged voter suppression; has mobilized his armed supporters to prevent votes from being counted; and has explicitly stated that he is changing the rules of the election. “We want all voting to stop,” he said on Wednesday morning, and vowed to take his case to the Supreme Court.

Please go read the rest at The New Yorker.

Ezra Klein makes a similar argument at Vox: Trump is attempting a coup in plain sight.

The Trump administration’s current strategy is to go to court to try and get votes for Biden ruled illegitimate, and that strategy explicitly rests on Trump’s appointees honoring a debt the administration, at least, believes they owe. One of his legal advisers said, “We’re waiting for the United States Supreme Court — of which the President has nominated three justices — to step in and do something. And hopefully Amy Coney Barrett will come through.”

If that fails, and it will, Mark Levin, one of the nation’s most popular conservative radio hosts, is explicitly calling on Republican legislatures to reject the election results and seat Donald Trump as president anyway. After Twitter tagged the tweet as contested, Trump’s press secretary weighed in furiously on Levin’s behalf.

That this coup probably will not work — that it is being carried out farcically, erratically, ineffectively — does not mean it is not happening, or that it will not have consequences. Millions will believe Trump, will see the election as stolen. The Trump family’s Twitter feeds, and those of associated outlets and allies, are filled with allegations of fraud and lies about the process (reporter Isaac Saul has been doing yeoman’s work tracking these arguments, and his thread is worth reading). It’s the construction of a confusing, but immersive, alternative reality in which the election has been stolen from Trump and weak-kneed Republicans are letting the thieves escape.

Francisco Franco

Francisco Franco, Spain

This is, to borrow Hungarian sociologist Bálint Magyar’s framework, “an autocratic attempt.” That’s the stage in the transition toward autocracy in which the would-be autocrat is trying to sever his power from electoral check. If he’s successful, autocratic breakthrough follows, and then autocratic consolidation occurs. In this case, the would-be autocrat stands little chance of being successful. But he will not entirely fail, either. What Trump is trying to form is something akin to an autocracy-in-exile, an alternative America in which he is the rightful leader, and he — and the public he claims to represent — has been robbed of power by corrupt elites.

“Democracy works only when losers recognize that they have lost,” writes political scientist Henry Farrell. That will not happen here.

It won’t happen, because the GOP is going along with Trump’s attempt.

Here’s the grim kicker: The conditions that made Trump and this Republican Party possible are set to worsen. Republicans retained control of enough statehouses to drive the next redistricting effort, too, and their 6-3 majority on the Supreme Court will unleash their map-drawers more fully. The elections analyst G. Elliott Morris estimates that the gap between the popular vote margin and the tipping point state in the Electoral College will be 4 to 5 percentage points, and that the GOP’s control of the redistricting process could push it to 6 to 7 points next time.

To say that America’s institutions did not wholly fail in the Trump era is not the same thing as saying they succeeded. They did not, and in particular, the Republican Party did not. It has failed dangerously, spectacularly. It has made clear that would-be autocrats have a path to power in the United States, and if they can walk far enough down that path, an entire political party will support them, and protect them. And it has been insulated from public fury by a political system that values land over people, and that lets partisan actors set election rules and draw district lines — and despite losing the presidency, the GOP still holds the power to tilt that system further in its direction in the coming years.

What happens when the next would-be autocrat tries this strategy — and what if they are smoother, more strategic, more capable than this one?

How is Trump’s autocratic attempt going so far? He has fired the Secretary of Defense and replaced him with a partisan loyalist. 

Adolf HItler

Adolf HItler, Germany

The Independent: ‘God help us’: Fired defence secretary Mark Esper worries about ‘yes men’ under Trump.

In an exclusive interview with Military Times that dropped shortly after his abrupt firing, Mr Esper took exception with critics who have called him a “yes man”, the source of the derogatory nickname “Yesper” used by the president.

“Name another Cabinet secretary that’s pushed back… Have you seen me on a stage saying, ‘Under the exceptional leadership of blah-blah-blah, we have blah-blah-blah-blah?” Mr Esper said.

“At the end of the day, it’s as I said — you’ve got to pick your fights… I could have a fight over anything, and I could make it a big fight, and I could live with that —why? Who’s going to come in behind me? It’s going to be a real ‘yes man.’ And then God help us.”

The interview was conducted on 4 November, before Mr Esper’s replacement would have been known.

Trump also fired the three officials who were in charge of our nuclear weapons. NPR: 

The Trump administration abruptly dumped the leaders of three agencies that oversee the nuclear weapons stockpile, electricity and natural gas regulation, and overseas aid during the past two days, drawing a rebuke from a prominent Republican senator for one of the decisions.

The sudden departures included:

  • Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, the first woman to oversee the agency in charge of the nuclear stockpile. She was required to resign on Friday.
  • Bonnie Glick, deputy administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development. She was replaced by acting Administrator John Barsa, who had run out of time for his more senior role under the Federal Vacancies Reform Act.
  • Neil Chatterjee, chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. He was replaced as chairman, though he will remain at FERC, an independent agency, as a commissioner.

The firings were overshadowed by the prolonged drama of the presidential election.

Hideki Tojo, Japan

Hideki Tojo, Japan

Trump is expected to fire CIA director Gina Haspel and FBI director Christopher Wray, according to Axios.

He has named another yes man as general counsel at the NSA. The Washington Post: White House official and former GOP political operative Michael Ellis named as NSA general counsel.

The Pentagon general counsel has named a White House official and former GOP political operative to be the top lawyer at the National Security Agency, the U.S. government’s largest and most technically advanced spy agency, U.S. officials said.

The selection of Michael Ellis, which has not yet been announced, was made Monday, said officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly. The appointment was made under pressure from the White House, said a person familiar with the matter….

Ellis, who was chief counsel to Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), a staunch supporter of President Trump and then-chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, has been at the White House since early 2017, when he became a lawyer on the National Security Council and then this year was elevated to senior director for intelligence.

There’s much more at the link.

Bill Barr is also on the case. The New York Times: Barr Hands Prosecutors the Authority to Investigate Voter Fraud Claims.

Attorney General William P. Barr, wading into President Trump’s unfounded accusations of widespread election irregularities, told federal prosecutors on Monday that they were allowed to investigate “specific allegations” of voter fraud before the results of the presidential race are certified.

Augusto Pinochet, chile

Augusto Pinochet, Chile

Mr. Barr’s authorization prompted the Justice Department official who oversees investigations of voter fraud, Richard Pilger, to step down from the post within hours, according to an email Mr. Pilger sent to colleagues that was obtained by The New York Times.

Mr. Barr said he had authorized “specific instances” of investigative steps in some cases. He made clear in a carefully worded memo that prosecutors had the authority to investigate, but he warned that “specious, speculative, fanciful or far-fetched claims should not be a basis for initiating federal inquiries.”

Mr. Barr’s directive ignored the Justice Department’s longstanding policies intended to keep law enforcement from affecting the outcome of an election. And it followed a move weeks before the election in which the department lifted a prohibition on voter fraud investigations before an election.

More from NBC News: DOJ’s election crimes chief resigns after Barr allows prosecutors to probe voter fraud claims.

The head of the branch of the Justice Department that prosecutes election crimes resigned Monday hours after Attorney General William Barr issued a memo to federal prosecutors authorizing them to investigate “specific allegations” of voter fraud before the results of the presidential race are certified.

Richard Pilger, who was director of the Election Crimes Branch of the DOJ, sent a memo to colleagues that suggested his resignation was linked to Barr’s memo, which was issued as the president’s legal team mount baseless legal challenges to the election results, alleging widespread voter fraud cost him the race.

“Having familiarized myself with the new policy and its ramifications, and in accord with the best tradition of the John C. Keeney Award for Exceptional Integrity and Professionalism (my most cherished Departmental recognition), I must regretfully resign from my role as Director of the Election Crimes Branch,” Pilger’s letter said, according to a copy obtained by NBC News.

“I have enjoyed very much working with you for over a decade to aggressively and diligently enforce federal criminal election law, policy, and practice without partisan fear or favor. I thank you for your support in that effort.”

Kim Il-sung, North Korea

Kim Il-sung, North Korea

Finally, Trump is preventing the Biden transition team from beginning their work. The Washington Post: White House, escalating tensions, orders agencies to rebuff Biden transition team.

The Trump White House on Monday instructed senior government leaders to block cooperation with President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team, escalating a standoff that threatens to impede the transfer of power and prompting the Biden team to consider legal action.

Officials at agencies across the government who had prepared briefing books and carved out office space for the incoming Biden team to use as soon as this week were told instead that the transition would not be recognized until the Democrat’s election was confirmed by the General Services Administration, the low-profile agency that officially starts the transition.

While media outlets on Saturday projected Biden as the winner, President Trump has not conceded the election.

“We have been told: Ignore the media, wait for it to be official from the government,” said a senior administration official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to speak publicly.

The GSA, the government’s real estate arm, remained for a third day the proxy in the battle. Administrator Emily Murphy, a Trump political appointee who has lasted a full term in an administration where turnover has been the norm, is refusing to sign paperwork that releases Biden’s $6.3 million share of nearly $10 million in transition resources and gives his team access to agency officials and information.

So that’s where things stand right now, as we battle an out-of-control pandemic with no help from the federal government and the Supreme Court hears arguments that may end the Affordable Care Act and strip 20,000,000 people of health insurance. 

Hang in there Sky Dancers! Take care of yourselves in this dangerous time. 


Thursday Reads

Good Morning!!

08bruni-jumboI’m not going to spend much time on the vice presidential debate in today’s post. CNN’s post-debate poll showed Kamala Harris was the winner.

I don’t think Mike Pence did a very good job of defending Trump, and that’s what he needed to do. He lied again and again with a straight face–that has always been his modus operandi. He refused to answer a question about what states should do about abortion if Roe v. Wade is overturned, and–worst of all–he dodged a question about whether there will be a peaceful transition of power if Trump loses. From The Daily Beast:

At the tail end of Wednesday night’s vice-presidential debate—one that was noticeably less fiery and chaotic than last week’s presidential clash—Vice President Mike Pence completely avoided answering what he would do if President Donald Trump refuses to step down if he loses the election….

The veep first said that he thinks his ticket will win re-election before accusing Democrats of not accepting the outcome of the 2016 election, bringing up the Russia investigation and the impeachment of the president. After invoking former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s advice that Joe Biden shouldn’t concede on election night if the results are close, Pence reiterated his belief that Trump would be re-elected.

“President Trump and I are fighting every day to prevent Joe Biden and Kamala Harris from changing the rules and creating a massive opportunity for voter fraud,” he concluded. “If we have a free and fair election, we’ll have confidence in it.”

Matt Flegenheimer and Annie Karni at The New York Times: Pence, Peerless Trump Defender, Confronts His Limits.

Vice President Mike Pence approached his task on Wednesday as he has approached his four years as the executive straight man to an unruly leader: not merely defending President Trump but effectively insisting, with poker-faced conviction, that those who doubt his boss should not believe their eyes and ears.

R6ZUW44OCRGKHMJQMHJKXZTXDIThe trouble this time was not Mr. Pence’s skill set on this front, which remains peerless. It was the fact set underpinning this debate, which remains inconvenient to an administration so overwhelmed by the virus that its own West Wing has become a hot spot.

And so Mr. Pence — stripped of most politically palatable explanations for the White House pandemic response — set off on a curious charge when Senator Kamala Harris said that the Trump team’s leadership “clearly” has not worked: He chose to hear it as a direct affront to the American people.

“When you say what the American people have done over these last eight months hasn’t worked,” Mr. Pence said gravely, as controlled as his president is rambunctious onstage, “that’s a great disservice to the sacrifices the American people have made.”

At last, the strain seemed to be showing, at least a little. Perhaps that is what a full term of wear-and-tear can do to even the most accomplished rhetorical gymnast.

Or perhaps the reality is simply too bleak for any administration to explain away entirely: The president has contracted the virus that has killed more than 210,000 Americans on his watch. His behavior, since leaving the hospital on Monday, appears to be a continuation of the kind of scientifically dubious happy talk that has left the Trump-Pence ticket at a significant polling disadvantage four weeks before Election Day.

Yes, the story today and every day until the election will be about Trump’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic, which has led to the deaths of 211,917 Americans as of this morning. In addition, Trump either doesn’t understand or simply refuses to admit that the pandemic is killing the economy.

244003_rgb_768IMHO, the biggest story this morning is the coronavirus outbreak at the White House and the obvious fact that Trump and his Trumpists have likely spread the virus very widely. Here’s the latest.

ABC News: 34 people connected to White House, more than previously known, infected by coronavirus: Internal FEMA memo.

The coronavirus outbreak has infected “34 White House staffers and other contacts” in recent days, according to an internal government memo, an indication that the disease has spread among more people than previously known in the seat of American government.

The memo also notes that a senior adviser to the president is among those infected. Hope Hicks and Stephen Miller, both senior aides to the president, have tested positive in recent days.

The new figures underscore both the growing crisis in the White House and the lengths to which government officials have gone to block information about the outbreak’s spread. ABC News had previously reported that a total of 24 White House aides and their contacts had contracted the virus. It was not clear in the FEMA memo with the larger number what “other contacts” referred to.

Jennifer Jacobs at Bloomberg: White House Security Official Contracted Covid-19 in September.

A top White House security official, Crede Bailey, is gravely ill with Covid-19 and has been hospitalized since September, according to four people familiar with his condition.

I'm in control hereThe White House has not publicly disclosed Bailey’s illness. He became sick before the Sept. 26 Rose Garden event President Donald Trump held to announce his Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett that has been connected to more than a dozen cases of the disease.

A White House spokesman declined to comment on Bailey. He is in charge of the White House security office, which handles credentialing for access to the White House and works closely with the U.S. Secret Service on security measures throughout the compound.

Chris Christie is still in the hospital and there has been no news about how he is doing. NJ.com:

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie remains hospitalized at Morristown Medical Center, where he was admitted Saturday after testing positive COVID-19

Christie’s current condition is not known. Hospital officials declined comment Tuesday….

Christie, who has struggled with his weight and has a lifelong history of asthma, tweeted that he checked himself into the hospital Saturday. Because of his conditions, he’s at higher risk of developing complications from the virus.

The Daily Beast: White House Quietly Told Vets Group It Might Have Exposed Them to COVID.

On the same day President Donald Trump acknowledged contracting the coronavirus, the White House quietly informed a veterans group that there was a COVID-19 risk stemming from a Sept. 27 event honoring the families of fallen U.S. service members, the head of that charitable organization told The Daily Beast.

5_wexler_0The White House warning, which came on Oct. 2, is the earliest known outreach to visitors of the complex that there was a risk of coronavirus emerging from the grounds where the president, the first lady, and at least 17 of his aides, according to Politico, have now tested positive for the virus.

The Sept. 27 event to honor Gold Star families came the day after the White House hosted a celebration for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett that appears to have been an early source of the White House outbreak, though West Wing officials have quietly disputed that linkage. It is unclear to the head of the veterans charity—the Greatest Generations Foundation—which participant’s potential positive coronavirus test sparked the warning.

USA Today: White House coronavirus outbreak may have exposed thousands from Atlanta to Minnesota.

President Donald Trump and other White House insiders infected with COVID-19 carried the virus across the country in a matter of days, potentially exposing hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people as they went about their business, a USA TODAY investigation found. 

From a religious summit outside Atlanta to a campaign rally at a Pennsylvania airport and a private fundraiser in Minnesota, Trump, his aides and political allies attended events with thousands of people, often without masks and little regard for social distancing….

USA TODAY reporters examined hundreds of photos and videos from news coverage and social media posts and scoured attendance logs to identify people who came in contact with those individuals.

don't be afraid of covidAt least 6,000 people attended meetings, rallies and other gatherings with them within a week of the Supreme Court nomination ceremony Sept. 26 in the White House Rose Garden, pegged as a potential “superspreader” event….

Epidemiologists and public health experts said USA TODAY’s analysis shows that the White House outbreak has put more people, in more places, at risk than has been previously known. It illustrates just how quickly and how far a superspreader event can carry COVID-19. 

“I don’t think we know the extent of this outbreak yet … people could die,” said Danielle Ompad, an associate professor of epidemiology at New York University’s School of Global Public Health. “It’s the height of irresponsibility for people who are supposed to be leaders.”

Meanwhile, Trump hasn’t been seen in public since he returned to the White House on Monday evening. Instead he has been posting videos of himself wearing heavier make-up than usual and babbling nonsense, including claiming he has been “cured” of the virus and may be immune to it. We haven’t been told what medications Trump is still taking, and the White House and Trump’s doctors have refused to say when Trump last tested negative for the virus. ABC News reports:

The White House has also declined to confirm when and how Trump was tested before last Tuesday’s presidential debate with Joe Biden, even though both campaigns certified to debate organizers that the candidates and everyone who traveled with them to Cleveland tested negative within 72 hours of the debate.

The White House, which has made contradictory statements about when and how often Trump is tested, said the president first tested positive Thursday evening, and first discussed symptoms with his doctor at that time. Studies have shown that coronavirus patients are infectious up to two days before the onset of symptoms.

primitive tribes“People ought to have the right to know whether or not they should be quarantining themselves, if they’re at risk,” Dr. Jeremy Faust, an emergency physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and an instructor at Harvard Medical School, told ABC News. “Potentially the president and his team have put others in harm’s way.”

While it’s not clear when Trump was infected with the virus, the White House’s silence raises questions about its compliance with debate rules, the frequency of Trump’s tests, and whether the president or his aides had concerns about him having the virus before he tested positive — as he kept up his busy schedule of campaign events.

And what about the next presidential debate? The debate commission announce that it will be done virtually, and Trump says he won’t participate and instead will hold a superspreader rally! The New York Times: Trump Objects to Commission’s Virtual Debate Plan.

President Trump, in an extraordinary break from the norms of modern campaigning, said on Thursday that he would refuse to participate in the next presidential debate after organizers changed the event to a virtual format because of health concerns about the coronavirus.

His withdrawal from the Oct. 15 event came shortly after the Commission on Presidential Debates, citing the “health and safety of all involved,” abandoned plans to stage the next in-person debate in Miami, saying that Mr. Trump and Joseph R. Biden Jr. would instead participate remotely from separate locations.

But Mr. Trump, whose recent contraction of the coronavirus was a significant impetus for the commission to modify its plans, immediately dismissed the idea of a remote debate as “ridiculous” and accused the debate commission without evidence of seeking to protect his Democratic opponent.

“No, I’m not going to waste my time on a virtual debate,” Mr. Trump told the Fox Business anchor Maria Bartiromo in a television interview. “That’s not what debating is all about. You sit behind a computer and do a debate — it’s ridiculous.”

And this is extraordinary: the editors of The New England Journal of Medicine have publicly stated that Trump should not get a second term: Dying in a Leadership Vacuum.

Here’s the gist:

Covid-19 has created a crisis throughout the world. This crisis has produced a test of leadership. With no good options to combat a novel pathogen, countries were forced to make hard choices about how to respond. Here in the United States, our leaders have failed that test. They have taken a crisis and turned it into a tragedy….

The United States came into this crisis with enormous advantages. Along with tremendous manufacturing capacity, we have a biomedical research system that is the envy of the world. We have enormous expertise in public health, health policy, and basic biology and have consistently been able to turn that expertise into new therapies and preventive measures. And much of that national expertise resides in government institutions. Yet our leaders have largely chosen to ignore and even denigrate experts.

The response of our nation’s leaders has been consistently inadequate. The federal government has largely abandoned disease control to the states. Governors have varied in their responses, not so much by party as by competence. But whatever their competence, governors do not have the tools that Washington controls. Instead of using those tools, the federal government has undermined them. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which was the world’s leading disease response organization, has been eviscerated and has suffered dramatic testing and policy failures. The National Institutes of Health have played a key role in vaccine development but have been excluded from much crucial government decision making. And the Food and Drug Administration has been shamefully politicized,3 appearing to respond to pressure from the administration rather than scientific evidence. Our current leaders have undercut trust in science and in government,4 causing damage that will certainly outlast them. Instead of relying on expertise, the administration has turned to uninformed “opinion leaders” and charlatans who obscure the truth and facilitate the promulgation of outright lies….

Anyone else who recklessly squandered lives and money in this way would be suffering legal consequences. Our leaders have largely claimed immunity for their actions. But this election gives us the power to render judgment. Reasonable people will certainly disagree about the many political positions taken by candidates. But truth is neither liberal nor conservative. When it comes to the response to the largest public health crisis of our time, our current political leaders have demonstrated that they are dangerously incompetent. We should not abet them and enable the deaths of thousands more Americans by allowing them to keep their jobs.

I think this post is getting too long; but I can’t be sure, because the new WordPress editor doesn’t provide a word count. I’ll post a few more stories in the comment thread below. I hope you all have a peaceful day. Take care of yourselves and your loved ones, and please check in with us if you have the time and inclination.