March 7, 2023 (Tuesday)
In a New York Times op-ed today, President Joe Biden offered the opening salvo in his battle with the Republicans over budget measures. He outlined his promise to make the Medicare trust solvent beyond 2050 without cutting benefits. Indeed, he says, his plan will make the program deliver better value on the money Americans invest in it.
Biden noted that both he and former president Barack Obama signed into law the biggest health reforms since the creation of Medicare in 1965. In 2010, Obama established the Affordable Care Act, more popularly known as Obamacare, extending medical coverage to many for whom it was out of reach. That law significantly slowed the growth of healthcare spending.
In 2022, Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act, permitting Medicare officials to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies for lower drug prices and capping the costs of drugs for seniors. This measure is projected to reduce the deficit by $159 billion.
Biden proposes to build on those two measures, increasing the scope of Medicare’s negotiations over drug prices, a process he claims would yield $200 billion in savings that he would put directly into Medicare’s trust fund.
He also proposes to raise the Medicare tax rate on earned and unearned income above $400,000 from its current rate of 3.8% to 5%. That money, too, would go into Medicare’s trust fund. “When Medicare was passed, the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans didn’t have more than five times the wealth of the bottom 50 percent combined,” Biden commented, “and it only makes sense that some adjustments be made to reflect that reality today. Let’s ask them to pay their fair share so that the millions of workers who helped them build that wealth can retire with dignity and the Medicare they paid into.”
Biden wrote that his budget would protect Medicare for more than another generation, beyond 2050. In contrast, he pointed out, MAGA Republicans want to repeal the Inflation Reduction Act, getting rid of drug negotiations and price caps.
Biden promised that this week he will release his “full budget vision to invest in America, lower costs, grow the economy and not raise taxes on anyone making under $400,000. I urge my Republican friends in Congress to do the same—and show the American people what they value.”
The circus at the Conservative Political Action Conference and the outrage when House speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) gave exclusive access to 44,000 hours of videos from the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, have taken oxygen away from what amounts to a crisis in the Republican Party.
Republican leadership has vowed to cut the U.S. budget significantly but has also said publicly that it would not touch Social Security or Medicare. (However, former vice president Mike Pence promptly negated that promise when he said, "While I respect the speaker’s commitment to take Social Security and Medicare off the table for the debt ceiling negotiations, we’ve got to put them on the table in the long term.”) Few Republicans will agree to cuts in the defense budget, either.
So McCarthy is in the impossible position of delivering the budget cuts his conference demands without actually having the room to cut in most of the budget. It’s a circle he is unlikely to be able to square.
Biden seems to be pushing the Republicans to release a budget plan not only to illustrate to the American people that for all their grandstanding they don’t have one, but also because he would like to return to a political norm in which parties actually explain how they would address issues, and then let voters choose which approach they prefer. It’s an old model and one the Republicans, who since 1980 have for the most part simply complained about the government rather than offering positive solutions, have no interest in adopting. Worse for them, polls show that the solutions Democrats want are popular, while their own insistence on privatizing everything is not.
Going forward, I suspect we’ll see a lot of distractions rather than an actual budget plan from the Republicans.
While they try to fudge the budget issue, the Republicans are still vowing to refuse to lift the debt ceiling, which is separate from the budget. The debt ceiling is a holdover from the World War I era, when Congress stopped debating which financial instruments the Treasury should use and instead just set an upper limit on borrowing. Raising the debt ceiling does not create new spending; it simply enables the government to pay for expenses already incurred. If it is not lifted, the U.S. Treasury will default. The U.S. has hit the current limit of $31.4 trillion, and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen is using extraordinary measures to pay bills.
Republicans are eager to pin the growing debt on Biden and the Democrats, but as Jim Tankersley noted in the New York Times yesterday, “Republicans bear at least equal blame as Democrats for the biggest drivers of federal debt growth that passed Congress over the last two presidential administrations.” Since early 2017—the start of Trump’s administration—three fifths of the ballooning new debt was signed into law by Trump, and nearly 75% of it came from bills approved by a majority of Republicans in at least one chamber of Congress. In laws passed on strict party-line votes, Republicans added slightly more debt than Democrats did. Notably, the Republicans’ tax cuts for the wealthy and for corporations under Trump cost at least $2 trillion over time.
Today the Senate Subcommittee on Economic Policy, which sits under the Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee and is chaired by Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), heard from economist Mark Zandi of Moody’s Analytics. Zandi warned that a U.S. default would “be a catastrophic blow to the already fragile economy.”
As Chelsey Cox of CNBC reported, Zandi explained that “[g]lobal financial markets and the economy would be upended, and even if resolved quickly, Americans would likely pay for this default for generations, as global investors would rightly believe that the federal government’s finances have been politicized and that a time may come when they would not be paid what they are owed when owed it.” Zaidi also warned that, considering how much of the budget is now off-limits, the cuts Republicans promise will be so extreme they will prompt a recession that will cost as many as 2.6 million jobs.
The Republican Party is in its current chaos in part because it has been boxed in by the former president. Trump’s base has forced party leaders to take impossible extremists stands like, for example, a showdown over the debt ceiling. New materials released tonight in the Dominion Voting Systems defamation lawsuit against the Fox News Network confirm that Fox News Channel executives and hosts did not believe that Trump won the election in 2020, although they continued to push that lie on their channel to hold Trump viewers.
But tonight’s material went further, suggesting that some of the hosts who were most vocal in promoting Trump were less fond of him in private. On January 4, 2021, host Tucker Carlson tweeted to someone: We are very, very close to being able to ignore Trump most nights. I truly can’t wait…. I hate him passionately.”
Speaking of Trump’s presidency, Tucker wrote: “We’re all pretending we’ve got a lot to show for it, because admitting what a disaster it’s been is too tough to digest. But come on. There really isn’t an upside to Trump.”
Can we just put that on full blast? It would end F*cker’s career and maybe get through to a few MAGAts just how much they have been lied to. OK, that’s probably a pipe dream, but hell, a guy can hold to some dreams, right?
March 8, 2023 (Wednesday)
Andrew Restuccia, Richard Rubin, and Stephanie Armour of the Wall Street Journal today published a preview of President Joe Biden’s budget, due to be released tomorrow. Their article’s beginning sent an important message.
Biden’s budget plan, they wrote, will “save hundreds of billions of dollars by seeking to lower drug prices, raising some business taxes, cracking down on fraud and cutting spending he sees as wasteful, according to White House officials.” Those officials said that, over the next ten years, the plan would cut deficits by close to $3 trillion.
Reflecting the needs of Ukraine to fight off the 2022 Russian invasion, as well as tensions with China, Biden will call for a larger defense budget. As he outlined yesterday, part of the budget plan will fund the Medicare trust fund for at least another 25 years, in part by increasing tax rates on people earning more than $400,000 a year.
“That is not going to happen. Obviously he knows that,” Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT) told the Wall Street Journal reporters. “Republicans are not going to sign up for raising taxes.”
Without a budget plan of their own to offer, House Republicans appear to be trying to steal the president’s thunder. They told Tony Romm of the Washington Post that they are getting ready for the House Ways and Means Committee to begin consideration tomorrow of a bill to prioritize the national debt in preparation for a national default. House Republicans continue to insist they will not vote to raise the debt ceiling to pay for expenses already incurred—many of them under Trump—thus forcing the U.S. into default for the first time in our history.
They are suggesting they could rank the debts in order of importance, but as Brian Riedl, an economist at the Manhattan Institute, told Romm, the computer systems were written with the assumption the country would, in fact, pay its debts, and they do not have programs that would let them prioritize payments to one group or another.
In any case, the White House has refused to negotiate over paying the nation’s bills. It remains eager to discuss the budget with Republicans and to negotiate over it—which is how the process is supposed to proceed—but insists the Republicans cannot hold the nation hostage by threatening a default that would spark an international financial crisis and destroy the American economy.
Indeed, the willingness of the Republican Party to default on the country’s debt shows how thoroughly radicalized it has become. Even the Republican leaders who do not embrace the racism, sexism, religiosity, nihilism, and authoritarianism of the hard-core MAGA Republicans appear to believe they cannot win an election without the votes of those people. And so the extremists now own the party.
They continue to support former president Trump, who at the Conservative Political Action Conference last weekend promised “those who have been wronged and betrayed: I am your retribution.” The party is now one of grievance and revenge, feeding on their false conviction that Trump won the 2020 election.
The Fox News Channel was key in feeding that Big Lie, of course, and filings from the Dominion Voting Systems defamation lawsuit against the Fox News Network have revealed that Fox executives and hosts alike knew it was a lie. They continued to spread it because they didn’t want to lose their base.
On Monday, Fox News Channel personality Tucker Carlson, who has found himself badly exposed by the Dominion filings, threw himself back into the Trump camp. He showed a false version of the January 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, suggesting it was a mostly peaceful tourist visit rather than the deadly riot it actually was. Carlson’s false narrative was possible because House speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) gave Carlson exclusive access to more than 40,000 hours of video taken in the Capitol on that fateful January 6, illustrating that there is no daylight between the lies of the Fox News Channel and the House Republican leadership.
Outrage over that transaction has sparked a backlash. Former officer of the Metropolitan Police Michael Fanone, who was badly injured defending the Capitol on January 6, published an op-ed in CNN saying he knew for certain that Carlson’s version of that day was a lie. “I was there. I saw it. I lived it,” Fanone wrote. “I fought alongside my brother and sister officers to defend the Capitol. We have the scars and injuries to prove it.”
Former representative Liz Cheney (R-WY) tweeted that if the House Republicans want new January 6th hearings, “bring it on. Let’s replay every witness & all the evidence from last year. But this time, those members who sought pardons and/or hid from subpoenas should sit on the dais so they can be confronted on live TV with the unassailable evidence.”
Senate Republicans also spoke out against Carlson’s lies. Minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) aligned himself with Capitol Police Chief Tom Manger, who called Carlson’s piece “offensive.” McConnell said: “It was a mistake, in my view, for Fox News to depict this in a way that’s completely at variance with what our chief law enforcement official here at the Capitol thinks.”
Democrats, along with the White House, also condemned Carlson’s video. White House spokesperson Andrew Bates said the White House supported the Capitol Police and lawmakers from both parties who condemned “this false depiction of the unprecedented, violent attack on our Constitution and the rule of law—which cost police officers their lives.” Bates went on: “We also agree with what Fox News’s own attorneys and executives have now repeatedly stressed in multiple courts of law: That Tucker Carlson is not credible.”
But McCarthy says he does not regret giving Carlson access to the tapes, and Carlson indicated that anyone who objected to the false narrative he put forward on Monday had revealed themselves as being allied against the Republican base. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) and House Oversight Committee chair James Comer (R-KY) are organizing a visit for members of Congress to visit the jail where defendants charged with crimes relating to the January 6th riot are being held. In the past, Greene called those defendants “political prisoners of war.”
Today the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released the 2023 Annual Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community. It warned that transnational “Racially or Ethnically Motivated Violent Extremists” (RMVEs) continue to pose a threat more lethal to U.S. persons and interests than do Islamist terrorists.
RMVEs are “largely a decentralized movement of adherents to an ideology that espouses the use of violence to advance white supremacy, neo-Nazism, and other exclusionary cultural-nationalist beliefs. These actors increasingly seek to sow social divisions, support fascist-style governments, and attack government institutions,” the report said. They “capitalize on societal and political hyperpolarization to…mainstream their narratives and conspiracy theories into the public discourse.” They are recruiting “military members” to “help them organize cells for attacks against minorities or institutions that oppose their ideology.”
Finally, John Bresnahan of Punchbowl News reported that 81-year-old Senator Mitch McConnell fell at an event at the Waldorf Astoria in Washington, D.C., tonight and has been hospitalized.
What a mealy-mouthed ass. He was there. He doesn’t need to obfuscate. He can speak to his direct experience of being under seige in the capitol. It’s just that McConnell is so used to not taking an actual position, that he breaks out in hives if he ever speaks directly.
I’d guess it’s more that he doesn’t want to incur the displeasure of MAGAts. Craven cur that he is.
they’re able to call a tiny sub group of religious extremists “islamist”, and can’t manage to put the word “white” even in acronym!? ah well it really could be any race or ethnicity. who’s to know?
i think the only difference between the full and the semi-fascists is that whether they choose ala carte or devour the whole buffet. ( some really like to pick and choose between their isms. )
March 9, 2023 (Thursday)
“Show me your budget,” President Joe Biden is fond of saying, “[and] I’ll tell you what you value.” Today, Biden introduced his 2024 budget at the Finishing Trades Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Biden’s 182-page, $6.9 trillion budget plan advances a vision of the United States based on the idea that the government should invest in workers, families, and infrastructure to increase the purchasing power of those on the “demand side” of the economy. It offers a stark contrast to the theory of the Republicans since the 1980s, that the government should cut taxes and slash government spending to free up capital for those at the top of the economy—on the “supply side”—with the idea they will use that money to invest in new business that will then hire more workers.
So-called supply-side economics was championed as a plan that would enable everyone, from workers to financiers, to thrive together as the economy boomed, but it never produced the kind of growth its promoters promised. Instead, when combined with dramatically increased defense spending, it exploded deficits and added dramatically to the national debt.
At the same time, wealth moved upward dramatically. A 2020 Rand Corporation study found that from 1975 to 2018, about $50 trillion moved from the bottom 90% of Americans to the top 1%. The Biden administration has set out to address this inequity by reimposing the rules that used to prevent corporations and the wealthiest Americans from gaming the system, and by making it easier for working men and women to make ends meet.
So far, Biden’s policies have created record numbers of jobs and kept unemployment numbers low, and today’s budget builds on those policies. Director of the Office of Management and Budget Shalanda Young told reporters that the budget plan was based on four values: “lowering costs for families, protecting and strengthening Social Security and Medicare, investing in America, and reducing the deficit by ensuring that the wealthiest in this country and big corporations begin to pay their fair share, and cutting wasteful spending on Big Pharma, Big Oil, and other special interests.” And, she added, “It does all of that while ensuring that no one earning less than $400,000 per year will pay a penny more in new taxes.”
Biden has called for rolling back Trump’s 2017 corporate tax cut, bringing the corporate rate up from 21% to 28% (it was 35% before the 2017 cuts). Biden proposed to raise the tax on capital gains for people earning at least $1 million a year from 20% to 39.6%. He wants a 25% minimum income tax rate for households worth at least $100 million, that is, the wealthiest 0.01% of taxpayers, who currently pay a rate of 8%. The plan calls for reversing the Trump tax for those making more than $400,000 a year, putting the top income tax rate to 39% from 37%. Other increases are all in this same vein: increasing revenue from the wealthiest Americans.
Biden’s budget document is not just about funding the government; it is a signal of the principles he might carry into the 2024 presidential contest. It offers Biden’s own blueprint for improving the lives of children, their caregivers, and other ordinary Americans, then undercuts Republican complaints about such investments by emphasizing that Biden’s plan—unlike anything the Republicans have offered—will cut the deficit over the next decade.
House speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) promptly tweeted that Biden’s budget is “completely unserious. He proposes trillions in new taxes that you and your family will pay directly or through higher costs. Mr. President: Washington has a spending problem, NOT a revenue problem.”
But McCarthy and the Republicans have not been able to agree on any of the cuts they claim they want to make, and so have not released a budget of their own. Biden has repeatedly asked them for one. He said today: “I want to make it clear. I’m ready to meet with the Speaker anytime—tomorrow, if he has his budget. Lay it down. Tell me what you want to do. I’ll show you what I want to do. See what we can agree on. What we don’t agree on, let’s see what we—we vote on.”
Instead of offering a budget plan, Republicans appear to be trying desperately to reassert control over the national political narrative, shoring up the virtual political reality that has given them such power even as it continues to take hits.
A number of reporters, including Nicholas Riccardi and David Bauder of the Associated Press and Nicholas Confessore and Jim Rutenberg of the New York Times, are using documents from the Dominion Voting Systems defamation suit against the Fox News Network to show how both Trump and then–Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) appealed directly to Fox News founder Rupert Murdoch for political support on the Fox News Channel (FNC). Murdoch passed the requests on to FNC executives, and FNC hosts promptly began to do as they were asked.
This pipeline from the Republican Party to the FNC included support for Trump’s tax cuts (“Once they pass this bill we must tell our viewers again and again what they will get,” Murdoch wrote), private sharing of Biden’s 2020 ads with Trump’s campaign, and attacks on Biden. (“Just made sure Fox banging on about these issues,” Murdoch advised. “If the audience talks the theme will spread.”) That support included pumping up Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) in his own race (“Could Sean say something supportive? We can’t lose the Senate if at all possible,” Murdoch wrote).
But by 2020 they had created an audience that depended on that narrative, and when they threatened to abandon FNC if it told the truth that Biden won the 2020 election, FNC hosts pushed the lie that Trump won out of fear they would lose their viewers.
The ecosystem that established a virtual political reality is now increasingly under assault.
Today, Bryon M. Large, presiding disciplinary judge of the Colorado Supreme Court, publicly censured Trump lawyer Jenna Ellis for misconduct after she “repeatedly made misrepresentations on national television and on Twitter, undermining the American public’s confidence in the 2020 presidential election.”
Ellis agreed that she had “made…misrepresentations while serving as counsel for the Trump campaign and personal counsel to President Trump.” Top among them was her insistence that the 2020 presidential election was fraudulent, including her statements that “we know the election was stolen from President Trump and we can prove that,” “the election was stolen and Trump won by a landslide,” and so on.
In Congress, Republicans are holding hearings designed to shore up their narrative, but they are not delivering the smooth sound bites the party needs. The Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government, chaired by Jim Jordan (R-OH), held another hearing today, this one focused on the idea that the government pressured Twitter to suppress stories about Hunter Biden’s laptop.
But Stacey Plaskett (D-Virgin Islands), the ranking Democratic member of the committee, immediately noted that the Republicans would be using material for the hearing that they had not shared with the Democrats, and Jordan got flustered and angry. Then Aaron Blake of the Washington Post fact checked Jordan’s allegations and noted that his theory that the FBI was secretly strategizing to protect Hunter Biden—during Trump’s administration—ignored key events and that two key witnesses had recently contradicted Jordan’s theory in sworn testimony.
Representative Barry Loudermilk (R-GA), chair of the House Administration Subcommittee on Oversight, said yesterday he is leading an investigation into the last congress’s House Select Committee on the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol, as well as on security failures around that event. That investigation, too, might not go well for the Republicans. The January 6th Committee asked Loudermilk to come talk to the committee members voluntarily about a tour he gave of the Capitol complex on January 5, 2021. He refused. Video showed that a man from that tour marched on the Capitol the next day, saying, “There’s no escape, Pelosi, Schumer, Nadler. We’re coming for you.”
Finally, today, Republican reputations took a hit when a jury found Larry Householder, the Republican former speaker of the Ohio House, and Matt Borges, the former leader of the Ohio Republican Party, guilty of racketeering conspiracy. In 2017, FirstEnergy Corporation began to funnel $61 million to Householder through dark money groups to enable him to get allies elected and take power. Once in charge, with the help of Borges—who was then a lobbyist—he got a $1.3 billion law through the House to bail the failing company out. Federal prosecutors say it is the largest corruption case in state history.
March 10, 2023 (Friday)
At the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) last weekend, Daily Wire host Michael Knowles said that “for the good of society…transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely—the whole preposterous ideology, at every level.” He worded his statement in such a way that it would inevitably create outrage that he could then angrily refute by insisting that “eradicating transgenderism” was not the same thing as eradicating transgender people. This sort of word game is a well-known right-wing tactic for garnering media attention.
Make no mistake: this attack on transgender people represents a deadly attack on the fundamental principle of American democracy, the idea that all people are created equal.
CPAC and its representatives have become increasingly close to Hungarian president Victor Orbán as he has asserted autocratic power in his own country. Orbán has explicitly rejected the liberal democracy that his country used to enjoy, saying that its emphasis on multiculturalism weakens national cultures while its insistence on human equality undermines traditional society by recognizing that women and LGBTQ people have the same rights as straight white men. The age of liberal democracy is over, he says, and a new age has begun.
In place of equality, Orbán advocates what he calls “illiberal democracy” or “Christian democracy.” “Christian democracy is, by definition, not liberal,” he said in July 2018; “it is, if you like, illiberal. And we can specifically say this in connection with a few important issues—say, three great issues. Liberal democracy is in favor of multiculturalism, while Christian democracy gives priority to Christian culture; this is an illiberal concept. Liberal democracy is pro-immigration, while Christian democracy is anti-immigration; this is again a genuinely illiberal concept. And liberal democracy sides with adaptable family models, while Christian democracy rests on the foundations of the Christian family model; once more, this is an illiberal concept.”
Orbán has focused on LBGTQ rights as a danger to “Western civilization.” Arguing the need to protect children, his party has made it impossible for transgender people to change their gender identification on legal documents and made it illegal to share with minors any content that can be interpreted as promoting an LBGTQ lifestyle. After Orbán put allies in charge of Hungarian universities, his government banned public funding for gender studies courses. According to his chief of staff: “The Hungarian government is of the clear view that people are born either men or women.”
As the opening speaker at CPAC in Texas last August, Orbán called for the establishment of a global right wing to continue to work together to destroy liberal democracy and establish Christian democracy.
The American right wing has heard the call, openly embracing Orbán’s principles. Vox senior correspondent Zack Beauchamp, who is a crackerjack analyst of right-wing political ideology both in the U.S. and abroad, noted in 2021 the rise of right-wing ideologues who saw themselves as the vanguard of a “post-liberal order.”
Beauchamp explained that these ideologues reject American democracy. They argue that “religious liberty, limited government, ‘the inviolability of private institutions (e.g., corporations),’ academic freedom, constitutional originalism, free markets, and free speech”—all central tenets of democracy—have created “liberal totalitarianism” that has destroyed “all institutions that were originally responsible for fostering human virtue: family, ennobling friendship, community, university, polity, church.”
They see the government institutions that defend these democratic tenets as part of a totalitarian system designed to destroy national virtue. If this were truly the case (it is not), it would be an act of heroism to try to destroy those systems altogether. Right-wing attacks on the FBI, the Department of Justice, and even the government itself over the arrest of January 6th rioters who they insist were peaceful tourists shore up the idea that the FBI and DOJ are part of a government determined to crush Trump supporters. That ideology invites those who believe it to continue to attack our government.
Knowles’s statement last week that transgenderism must be eradicated from public life was not simply an attack on transgender individuals, although it was certainly that. Tapping into the anti-LGBTQ sentiment that Orbán and those like him have used to win voters, the statement was a crucial salvo in the attempt to destroy American democracy and replace it with Christian nationalism.
But there is a very simple answer to the radical right’s attack on LGBTQ people that also answers their rejection of democracy. It is an answer that history has proved again and again.
Once you give up the principle of equality, you have given up the whole game. You have admitted the principle that people are unequal, and that some people are better than others. Once you have replaced the principle of equality with the idea that humans are unequal, you have stamped your approval on the idea of rulers and subjects. At that point, all you can do is to hope that no one in power decides that you belong in the lesser group.
In 1858, Abraham Lincoln, then a candidate for the Senate, warned that arguments limiting American equality to white men and excluding black Americans were the same arguments “that kings have made for enslaving the people in all ages of the world…. Turn in whatever way you will—whether it come from the mouth of a King, an excuse for enslaving the people of his country, or from the mouth of men of one race as a reason for enslaving the men of another race, it is all the same old serpent.”
Either people—men, in his day—were equal, or they were not. Lincoln went on: “I should like to know if taking this old Declaration of Independence, which declares that all men are equal upon principle and making exceptions to it…where will it stop?”
March 11, 2023 (Saturday)
Let’s have a quiet night, shall we?
We can come back to it tomorrow.
[Photo by Buddy Poland.]
March 12, 2023 (Sunday)
At 6:15 this evening, Secretary of the Treasury Janet L. Yellen, Federal Reserve Board Chair Jerome H. Powell, and Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) Chairman Martin J. Gruenberg announced that Secretary Yellen has signed off on measures to enable the FDIC to fully protect everyone who had money in Silicon Valley Bank, Santa Clara, California, and Signature Bank, New York. They will have access to all of their money starting Monday, March 13. None of the losses associated with this resolution, the statement said, “will be borne by the taxpayer.”
But, it continued, “Shareholders and certain unsecured debtholders will not be protected. Senior management has also been removed. Any losses to the Deposit Insurance Fund to support uninsured depositors will be recovered by a special assessment on banks, as required by law.”
The statement ended by assuring Americans that “the U.S. banking system remains resilient and on a solid foundation, in large part due to reforms that were made after the financial crisis that ensured better safeguards for the banking industry. Those reforms combined with today’s actions demonstrate our commitment to take the necessary steps to ensure that depositors’ savings remain safe.”
It’s been quite a weekend.
On Friday, Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) failed in the largest bank failure since 2008. At the end of December 2022, SVB appears to have had about $209 billion in total assets and about $175 billion in deposits. This made SVB the sixteenth largest bank in the U.S., big in its sector but small compared with the more than $3 trillion JPMorgan Chase. This is the first bank failure of the Biden presidency (while Donald Trump Jr. tweeted that he had not heard of any bank failures during his father’s presidency, there were sixteen, eight of which happened before the pandemic). In fact, generally, a few banks fail every year; it is an oddity that none failed in 2021 or 2022.
The failure of SVB created shock waves for three reasons. First, SVB was the major bank for technology start-ups, so it involved much of a single sector of the economy. Second, only about $8 billion of the $173 billion worth of deposits in SVB were less than the $250,000 that the FDIC insures, meaning that the companies who had made those deposits might not get their money back quickly and thus might not be able to make payrolls, sparking a larger crisis. Third, there was concern that the problems that plagued SVB might cause other banks to fail, as well.
What seems to have happened, though, appears to be specific to SVB. Bloomberg’s Matt Levine explained it most clearly:
As the bank for start-ups, which have a lot of cash from investors and the initial public offering of stock, SVB had lots of deposits. But start-up companies don’t need much in the way of loans because they’ve just gotten so much cash and they don’t yet have fixed assets. So, rather than balancing deposits with loans that fluctuate with interest rates and thus keep a bank on an even keel, SVB’s directors took a gamble that the Federal Reserve would not raise interest rates. They invested in long-term Treasury bonds that paid better interest rates than short-term securities. But when, in fact, interest rates went up, the value of those long-term bonds sank.
For most banks, higher interest rates are good news because they can charge more for loans. But for SVB, they hurt.
Then, because SVB concentrated on start-ups, they had another problem. Start-ups are also hurt by rising interest rates because they tend to promise to deliver returns in the long term, which is fine so long as interest rates stay steadily low, as they have been now for years. But as interest rates go up, investors tend to like faster returns than most start-ups can deliver. They take their money to places that are going to see returns sooner. For SVB, that meant their depositors began to need some of that money they had dumped into the bank and started to withdraw their deposits.
So SVB sold securities at a loss to cover those deposits. Other investors panicked as they saw SVB selling at a loss and losing deposits, and they, too, started yanking their money out of the bank, collapsing it. Banks that have a more diverse client base are less likely to lose everyone all at once.
The FDIC took control of the bank on Friday. On Sunday, regulators also shut down Signature Bank, based in New York, which was a major bank for the cryptocurrency industry. Another crypto-friendly bank, Silvergate, failed last week.
Congress created the FDIC under the Banking Act of 1933 to restore trust in the American banking system after more than a third of U.S. banks failed after the Great Crash of 1929, sparking runs on banks as depositors rushed to take out their money whenever rumors suggested a bank was in trouble, thus causing more failures. The FDIC is an independent agency that insures deposits, examines and supervises banks to make sure they’re healthy, and manages the fallout when they’re not. The FDIC is backed by the full faith and credit of the government, but it is not funded by the government. Member banks pay insurance dues to cover bank failures, and when that isn’t enough money, the FDIC can borrow from the federal government or issue debt.
Over the weekend, the crisis at SVB became a larger argument over the role of government in the protection of the economy. Tech leaders took to social media to insist that the government must cover all the deposits in the failed bank, not just the ones covered under FDIC. They warned that the companies whose deposits were uninsured would fail, taking down the rest of the economy with them.
Others noted that the very men who were arguing the government should protect all the depositors’ money, not just that protected under the FDIC, have been vocal in opposing both government regulation of their industry and government relief for student loan debt, suggesting that they hate government action…except for themselves. They also pointed out that in 2018, under Trump, Congress weakened government regulations for banks like SVB and that SVB’s president had been a leading advocate for weakening those regulations. Had those regulations been in place, they argue, SVB would have remained solvent.
It appears that Yellen, Powell, and Gruenberg, in consultation with the president (as required), concluded that the collapse of SVB and Signature Bank was a systemic threat to the nation’s whole financial system, or perhaps they concluded that the panic over that collapse—which is a different thing than the collapse itself—was a threat to the nation’s financial system. They apparently decided to backstop the banks to prevent more damage. But they are eager to remind people that they are not using taxpayer money to shore up a poorly managed bank.
Right now, this appears to leave us with two takeaways. The Biden administration had been considering tightening the banking regulations that were loosened under Trump, and it seems likely that the need for the federal government to step in to protect the depositors at SVB and Signature Bank will make it much harder for those opposed to regulation to keep that from happening. There will likely be increased pressure on the Biden administration to guard against helping out the wealthy and corporations rather than ordinary Americans.
And, perhaps even more important, the weekend of panic and fear over the collapse of just one major bank should make it clear that the Republicans’ threat to default on the U.S. debt, thus pulling the rug out from under the entire U.S. economy unless they get their way, is simply unthinkable.
March 13, 2023 (Monday)
While the failures of the Silicon Valley and Signature Banks got most of the oxygen today, the more important news of the day is likely the meeting in San Diego, California, between President Joe Biden, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese of Australia, and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak of the United Kingdom.
These three countries make up the new AUKUS security pact, announced on September 15, 2021, designed to provide a military counter to China’s influence in the Indo-Pacific region. (The Five Eyes alliance of those three countries plus Canada and New Zealand focuses on sharing intelligence.) Today’s meeting, and its announcement that AUKUS will create a new fleet of nuclear-powered (but not nuclear-armed) submarines, brings that pact to a new level.
At the meeting today, the U.S. announced it will share its nuclear propulsion technology with Australia and will increase U.S. submarine construction capacity. The U.K. announced it will increase its defense spending. And Australia will buy at least three nuclear-powered submarines from the U.S.
The U.K. and Australia will build new nuclear-powered submarines for their own navies. Sailors from the fleets will train together, and U.S. and U.K. submarines will increase their visits to Australian ports. Eventually, the alliance will create its own nuclear-powered submarines, the SSN-AUKUS.
Both Biden and Albanese were very clear about the distinction between nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed submarines, and they emphasized that the Australian submarines will not be nuclear armed. “Australia is a proud non–nuclear weapons state and has committed to stay that way,” Biden said. “These boats will not have any nuclear weapons of any kind on them.”
Nuclear-powered submarines are powerful pieces of a country’s arsenal because, unlike diesel-electric submarines, they do not have to surface frequently to refuel and so can travel secretly far longer than traditionally fueled vessels. This is the first time the U.S. has shared its nuclear technology in more than 60 years and illustrates the Biden administration’s focus on oceans, rather than land, for defense.
“This is a genuine trilateral undertaking,” Albanese said. While the U.S., the U.K., and Australia share a long, friendly history, he continued, what they “hold in common is more fundamental and more universal than our shared histories. We are bound, above all, by our belief in a world where the sovereignty of every nation is respected and the inherent dignity of every individual is upheld; where peace, stability, and security ensure greater prosperity and a greater measure of fairness for all; and where all countries are able to act in their sovereign interests, free from coercion.”
As National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan put it, what we are seeing is “a larger long-term investment by the United States in core alliances in the Indo-Pacific and also the actual concrete reflection of President Biden’s strategy of linking allies in the Atlantic with allies in the Pacific. And it also reflects his commitment to ensuring that there is burden-sharing among our allies, as we’ve seen in the way that Europe has stepped up in the war in Ukraine, as we’ve seen how Japan has stepped up with its defense budget.”
It is a message, he said, for the next several decades.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon’s proposed 2024 budget proposal, released today, is the largest peacetime budget in our history. It’s about $25 billion more than the $816 billion budget Congress approved for 2023. It modernizes U.S. weaponry and invests an unprecedented $145 billion in research-and-development projects. It reduces the size of the Army and upgrades Navy ships, scrapping older ships earlier than planned. It adds new aircraft to the Air Force. The budget signals a shift toward Biden’s plan for defense against China.
There was lots of fallout today from the bank collapses of the weekend, but the upshot appears to be that the damage has been contained, leaving plenty of room for finger-pointing over the crisis.
President Biden reassured the American people that the banking system was safe and said he would ask Congress and banking regulators “to strengthen the rules for banks to make it less likely this kind of bank failure would happen again, and to protect American jobs and small businesses.” Observers of Silicon Valley Bank’s failure note that the 2018 loosening of banking regulations that had been imposed after the 2008 crash paved the way for SVB’s troubles. One of the lobbyists for this loosening was Greg Becker, who until Friday was the person in charge of SVB.
Meanwhile, David McIntosh, president of the right-wing Club for Growth, retorted, “Changing the rules after the crash to prop-up liberal investors at the expense of taxpayers is pure crony capitalism,” a sentence that seems to mix a bunch of different concepts together. Florida governor Ron DeSantis and Trump-adjacent figures took a different tack, falling back on the culture-war lens they use for everything, blaming the failure not on the company’s poor business decisions but on “wokeness.”
In an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, Andy Kessler, who writes on technology and markets, echoed the culture warriors, writing that “in its proxy statement, SVB notes that besides 91% of their board being independent and 45% women, they also have ‘1 Black,’ ‘1 LGBTQ+’ and ‘2 Veterans.’ I’m not saying 12 white men would have avoided this mess,” Kessler wrote, “but the company may have been distracted by diversity demands.”
In other news, House Republicans have ended the congressional investigation into former president Trump’s financial records. Representative Jamie Raskin (D-MD), the top Democrat on the Oversight and Accountability Committee, on Sunday accused committee chair James Comer (R-KY) of coordinating with Trump’s lawyers to end the probe into Trump’s finances. On January 19, 2023, Trump’s lawyer Patrick Strawbridge wrote to the lawyer for Trump’s accounting firm, whose records the committee had subpoenaed in 2019, saying “my understanding is that the Committee has no interest in forcing Mazars to complete it and is willing to release it from further obligations under the settlement agreement.”
Instead of pursuing the investigation into Trump, Comer says he plans to look into “money the Bidens received from China.” Trump accused Biden of taking a $1.5 billion payoff from China without any evidence. Now Comer claims to have “documents to prove” that the Biden family has taken illicit money from China, but there is no evidence that this allegation is true. Raskin revealed Sunday that Comer has quietly subpoenaed 14 years of business records from Bank of America for three of Hunter Biden’s business associates.
Finally, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who was hospitalized last Wednesday night after a fall at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Washington, D.C., has been released from hospital to a rehabilitation facility for physical therapy before returning to his home.
March 14, 2023 (Tuesday)
Two years ago, in the midst of the pandemic, I whipped off a quick and somewhat flippant letter about why March 15 is a crucially important day in American history. It became one of the most popular things I’ve ever written, so popular that when I was asked to write a book based on these letters, I centered the book around it.
And then, as books have a way of doing, the project changed and this material dropped away. The only piece of the letter that made it into the final version of the book was Owen Lovejoy’s vow never to forget his brother Elijah’s murder at the hands of a proslavery mob.
It’s a shame because there is much of our history and our present, as well as of me, in this story, and so I am taking a relatively quiet night on this date in 2023 to retell it.
But now there is more to add. Exactly three and a half years ago tomorrow, on September 15, 2019, I began to write these Letters from an American. At the time, I was simply answering the questions people on my Facebook page had asked me about the emerging scandal of Trump withholding congressionally approved funds from Ukraine; I had no idea that we were beginning an epic journey together.
It turns out to be a journey deeply rooted in this country’s history, and I often cannot wrap my head around the fact we are quietly making our own history, just as our predecessors did. It is a curious thing to be a historian in this moment: we live in both the past and the present, and I promise you we worry about the future. Above all, though, I am constantly thankful to be on this journey with so many wonderful people who are organizing, as Lincoln’s Republicans did, to change the course of the nation.
Anyway, a little backstory about the flippant tale I told two years ago: the man who taught me to use a chainsaw is real—together we cleared a field gone to alders in summer 1978. An adze is a woodcutting tool. And Hannibal Hamlin is one of the few topics my now-husband and I could find to talk about on our tongue-tied first date.
So, two years ago, I wrote:
By the time most of you will read this it will be March 15, which is too important a day to ignore. As the man who taught me to use a chainsaw said, it is immortalized by Shakespeare’s famous warning: “Cedar! Beware the adze of March!”
He put it that way because the importance of March 15 is, of course, that it is the day in 1820 that Maine, the Pine Tree State, joined the Union.
Maine statehood had national repercussions. The inhabitants of this northern part of Massachusetts had asked for statehood in 1819, but their petition was stopped dead by southerners who refused to permit a free state—one that did not permit enslavement—to enter the Union without a corresponding “slave state.” The explosive growth of the northern states had already given free states control of the House of Representatives, but the South held its own in the Senate, where each state got two votes. The admission of Maine would give the North the advantage, and southerners insisted that Maine’s admission be balanced with the admission of a southern slave state lest those opposed to slavery use their power in the federal government to restrict enslavement in the South.
They demanded the admission of Missouri to counteract Maine’s two “free” Senate votes.
But this “Missouri Compromise” infuriated northerners, especially those who lived in Maine. They swamped Congress with petitions against admitting Missouri as a slave state, resenting that enslavers in the Senate could hold the state of Maine hostage until they got their way. Tempers rose high enough that Thomas Jefferson wrote to Massachusetts—and later Maine—Senator John Holmes that he had for a long time been content with the direction of the country, but that the Missouri question “like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. It is hushed indeed for the moment, but this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence.”
Congress passed the Missouri Compromise, but Jefferson was right to see it as nothing more than a reprieve.
The petition drive that had begun as an effort to keep the admission of Maine from being tied to the admission of Missouri continued as a movement to get Congress to whittle away at enslavement where it could—by, for example, outlawing the sale of enslaved Americans in the nation’s capital—and would become a key point of friction between the North and the South.
There was also another powerful way in which the conditions of the state’s entry into the Union would affect American history. Mainers were angry that their statehood had been tied to the demands of far distant enslavers, and that anger worked its way into the state’s popular culture. The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 meant that Maine men, who grew up steeped in that anger, could spread west.
And so they did.
In 1837, Elijah P. Lovejoy, who had moved to Alton, Illinois, from Albion, Maine, to begin a newspaper dedicated to the abolition of human enslavement, was murdered by a pro-slavery mob, who threw his printing press into the Mississippi River.
Elijah Lovejoy’s younger brother, Owen, had also moved west from Maine. Owen saw Elijah shot and swore his allegiance to the cause of abolition. “I shall never forsake the cause that has been sprinkled with my brother’s blood,” he declared. He turned to politics, and in 1854 he was elected to the Illinois state legislature. His increasing prominence brought him political friends, including an up-and-coming lawyer who had arrived in Illinois from Kentucky by way of Indiana, Abraham Lincoln.
Lovejoy and Lincoln were also friends with another Maine man gone to Illinois. Elihu Washburne had been born in Livermore, Maine, in 1816, when Maine was still part of Massachusetts. He was one of seven brothers, and one by one, his brothers had all left home, most of them to move west. Israel Washburn, Jr., the oldest, stayed in Maine, but Cadwallader moved to Wisconsin, and William Drew would follow, going to Minnesota. (Elihu was the only brother who spelled his last name with an e).
Israel and Elihu were both serving in Congress in 1854 when Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act overturning the Missouri Compromise and permitting the spread of slavery to the West. Furious, Israel called a meeting of 30 congressmen in May to figure out how they could come together to stand against the Slave Power that had commandeered the government to spread the South’s system of human enslavement. They met in the rooms of Representative Edward Dickinson, of Massachusetts—whose talented daughter Emily was already writing poems—and while they came to the meeting from all different political parties, they left with one sole principle: to stop the Slave Power that was turning the government into an oligarchy.
The men scattered for the summer back to their homes across the North, sharing their conviction that a new party must rise to stand against the Slave Power. In the fall, those calling themselves “anti-Nebraska” candidates were sweeping into office—Cadwallader Washburn would be elected from Wisconsin in 1854 and Owen Lovejoy from Illinois in 1856—and they would, indeed, create a new political party: the Republicans. The new party took deep root in Maine, flipping the state from Democratic to Republican in 1856, the first time it fielded a presidential candidate.
In 1859, Abraham Lincoln would articulate an ideology for the party, defining it as the party of ordinary Americans standing together against the oligarchs of slavery, and when he ran for president in 1860, he knew it was imperative that he get the momentum of Maine men on his side. In those days Maine voted for state and local offices in September, rather than November, so a party’s win in Maine could start a wave. “As Maine goes, so goes the nation,” the saying went.
So Lincoln turned to Hannibal Hamlin, who represented Maine in the Senate (and whose father had built the house in which the Washburns grew up). Lincoln won 62% of the vote in Maine in 1860, taking all 8 of the state’s electoral votes, and went on to win the election. When he arrived in Washington quietly in late February to take office the following March, Elihu Washburne was at the railroad station to greet him.
I was not a great student in college. I liked learning, but not on someone else’s timetable. It was this story that woke me up and made me a scholar. I found it fascinating that a group of ordinary people from country towns who shared a fear that they were losing their democracy could figure out how to work together to reclaim it.
Happy Birthday, Maine.
March 15, 2023 (Wednesday)
The Justice Department today announced the arrest of Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui, also known as Ho Wan Kwok and Miles Guo, charged with defrauding followers of more than $1 billion. The 12-count indictment for wire fraud, securities fraud, bank fraud, and money laundering says Guo and a co-conspirator, Kin Ming Je, raised money by promising stock in Guo’s GTV Media Group, a high-end club, or cryptocurrency but then used the money themselves for items that included a $53,000 fireplace log holder, a watch storage box that cost almost $60,000, and two $36,000 mattresses, as well as more typical luxury items: a 50,000-square-foot mansion, a Lamborghini, and designer furniture.
The U.S. government seized more than $630 million from multiple bank accounts as well as other assets purchased with illicit money. If convicted, Guo faces up to 20 years in prison. Guo has attracted donors by developing the idea that he is a principled opponent of the Chinese Communist Party, but Dan Friedman, who writes on lobbying and corruption for Mother Jones, points out that this persona appears to be a grift.
Guo is close to sometime Trump ally Steve Bannon, who was reading a book on Guo’s yacht, Lady May, when federal officers arrested him for defrauding donors of $25 million in his “We Build the Wall” fundraising campaign. Rather than constructing a wall, Bannon and three associates funneled that money to themselves. Trump pardoned Bannon for that scheme hours before he left office.
Friedman points out that prosecutors say Guo’s criminal conspiracy began in 2018, which is the year that Guo and Bannon launched The Rule of Law Foundation and the Rule of Law Society. They claimed the organizations would defend human rights in China and then, according to prosecutors, lured donors to other products.
In April 2020, Guo and Bannon formed the GTV Media Group, which flooded the news with disinformation before the 2020 election, especially related to Hunter Biden and the novel coronavirus. Sued by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission in September 2021 for the illegal sale of cryptocurrency, GTV paid more than $539 million to settle the case. Bannon’s War Room webcast features Guo performing its theme song.
One of the entities Guo and Bannon created together is the “New Federal State of China,” which sponsored the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C., earlier this month.
In other money news, Hugo Lowell of The Guardian reported today that $8 million of the loans that bankrolled Trump’s social media platform Truth Social came from two entities that are associated with Anton Postolnikov, a relation of an ally of Russian president Vladimir Putin named Aleksandr Smirnov.
Banks continue to writhe, in Europe this time, as Credit Suisse disclosed problems in its reporting and its largest investor, Saudi National Bank, said it would not inject more cash into the institution. The government of Switzerland says it will backstop the bank.
In the U.S., Michael Brown, a venture partner at Shield Capital and former head of the Defense Department’s Defense Innovation Unit, told Marcus Weisgerber and Patrick Tucker of Defense One that the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank had the potential to be a big problem for national security, since a number of the affected start-ups were working on projects for the defense sector. “If you want to kind of knock out the seed corn for the next decade or two of innovative tech, much of which we need for the competition with China, [collapsing SVB] would have been a very effective blow. [Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin] would have been cheering to see so many companies fail.”
Federal and state investigators are looking into the role of Representative George Santos (R-NY) in the sale of a $19 million yacht from one of his wealthy donors to another, for which he collected a broker’s fee. In an interview with Semafor last December, Santos explained that his income had jumped from $55,000 in 2020 to enough money to loan his 2022 campaign $705,000 because he had begun to act as a broker for boat or plane sales. He told Semafor: “If you’re looking at a $20 million yacht, my referral fee there can be anywhere between $200,000 and $400,000.”
Today’s emphasis on money and politics brings to mind the speech then–FBI director Robert Mueller gave in New York in 2011, warning about a new kind of national security threat: “so-called ‘iron triangles’ of organized criminals, corrupt government officials, and business leaders” allied not by religion or political inclinations, but by greed.
It also brings to mind the adamant opposition of then–National Republican Senatorial Committee chair Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to campaign finance reform in 1997 after he raised a record-breaking amount of money for Republican candidates, saying that political donations are simply a form of free speech. The Supreme Court read that interpretation into law in the 2010 Citizens United decision, but the increasingly obvious links between money, politics, and national security suggest it might be worth revisiting.
Money and politics are in the news in another way today, too, as part of the ongoing budget debates. A letter yesterday from the Congressional Budget Office to Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Ron Wyden (D-OR), answering their questions about how to eliminate the deficit by 2033, says that it is impossible to balance the budget by that year without either raising revenue or cutting either Social Security, Medicare, or defense spending. Even zeroing out all discretionary spending is not sufficient. Led by House speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), Republicans have promised they can do so, but they have not yet produced a budget. This CBO information makes their job harder.
And finally, today, in Amarillo, Texas, U.S. District Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk held a hearing on the drug mifepristone, used in about half of medically induced abortions. The right-wing “Alliance Defending Freedom,” acting on behalf of antiabortion medical organizations and four doctors, is challenging the approval process the Food and Drug Administration used 22 years ago to argue that the drug should be prohibited. While the approval process took more than four years, it was conducted under an expedited process that speeds consideration of drugs that address life-threatening illnesses. “Pregnancy is not an illness,” senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom Julie Marie Blake said.
And yet mifepristone is commonly used in case of miscarriage and for a number of other medical conditions. And Texas’s Maternal Mortality and Morbidity Review, released in December 2022, concluded that from March 2021 to December 2022, at least 118 deaths in Texas were related to pregnancy. In 2020, 861 deaths in the U.S. were related to pregnancy, up from 754 in 2019.
Public health officials note that extensive research both in the U.S. and in Europe has proven the medication is safe and effective. They warn that a judge’s overturning a drug’s FDA approval 20 years after the fact could upend the country’s entire drug-approval system, as approvals for coronavirus treatments, for example, become plagued by political challenges.
Kacsmaryk was appointed by Trump and is well known for his right-wing views on abortion and same-sex marriage. Initially, he kept the hearing over a nationwide ban on the key drug used for medicated abortion off the docket, and in a phone call last Friday he asked lawyers not to publicize today’s hearing, saying he was concerned about safety. Legal observers were outraged at the attack on judicial transparency—a key part of our justice system—and Chris Geidner of LawDork outlined the many times Kacsmaryk had taken a stand in favor of the “public’s right to know.”
According to Ian Millhiser of Vox, Kacsmaryk let 19 members of the press and 19 members of the public into today’s hearing.
March 16, 2023 (Thursday)
Yesterday, Tamar Hallerman and Bill Rankin of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that the special grand jury in Fulton County, Georgia, investigating the attempt to overturn the 2020 presidential election in that state, heard yet another recording of former president Trump pushing a key lawmaker—in this case, Georgia House speaker David Ralston—to convene a special session of the legislature to overturn Biden’s victory.
One juror recalled that Ralston “basically cut the president off. He said, ‘I will do everything in my power that I think is appropriate.’ … He just basically took the wind out of the sails.” Ralston, who died last November, did not call a special session.
This is the third such recorded call. One was with Georgia secretary of state Brad Raffensperger, and another was with the lead investigator in Raffensperger’s office. Ralston had reported the call, but it was not public knowledge that there was a recording of it.
Hallerman and Rankin interviewed five members of the grand jury, which met for 8 months and heard testimony from 75 witnesses. The jurors praised the elections system, and one said, “I tell my wife if every person in America knew every single word of information we knew, this country would not be divided as it is right now.” Another said: “A lot’s gonna come out sooner or later…. And it’s gonna be massive. It’s gonna be massive.”
The special grand jury recommended Fulton County district attorney Fani Willis indict people involved in the attempt to overturn the election. The cases are now in her hands.
Yesterday, prosecutors in New York met with Stormy Daniels, the adult film actress whom Trump allegedly paid $130,000 to keep their sexual liaison quiet. Also yesterday, Trump fixer Michael Cohen testified before a grand jury about the hush-money payment. Cohen’s testimony suggests that Manhattan district attorney Alvin L. Bragg is considering an indictment on a felony charge for misrepresenting the nature of that payment.
Trump has a new lawyer in that case, Joe Tacopina, who has been making the rounds on television shows to insist that Trump isn’t guilty. Tacopina’s job isn’t easy, and he is not necessarily helping, telling MSNBC’s Ari Melber that Trump didn’t actually lie about the hush payment when he lied about it because he was not under oath and he didn’t want to violate a confidentiality agreement.
Also in New York, Trump has asked a judge to delay the $250 million civil case against him, his three oldest children, and the Trump Organization, for manipulating asset valuations to get bank loans and avoid taxes. New York attorney general Letitia James, who brought the suit, said the defendants had had plenty of time to prepare and that Trump is trying to move the case into the election season, at which point he will insist it must be delayed again.
Katelyn Polantz, Paula Reid, Kristen Holmes, and Casey Gannon of CNN reported today that the federal grand jury investigating Trump’s handling of classified documents has interviewed dozens of Mar-a-Lago staff, from servers to attorneys. Special Counsel Jack Smith continues to try to get Trump lawyer Evan Corcoran to testify after prosecutors learned that on June 24, 2022, Trump and Corcoran spoke on the phone as Trump had been ordered to produce the missing documents and the surveillance tapes of the area.
Prosecutors want Corcoran to have to testify despite the attorney-client privilege he claims, using the “crime-fraud exception,” which means that discussions that aided a crime cannot be kept secret.
In the face of this mounting legal pressure, Trump took to video to demand: “The State Department, the defense bureaucracy, the intelligence services, and all of the rest need to be completely overhauled and reconstituted to fire the deep staters.” Then, he said, his people need to finish the process he began of “fundamentally revaluating [sic] NATO’s purpose and NATO’s mission.” “[T]he greatest threat to Western civilization today is not Russia,” he said, but “some of the horrible USA-hating people that represent us.”
This speech was not simply a defense of Russia and its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. In his attempt to undermine the legal cases against him, Trump has endorsed the “post-liberal order” whose adherents reject the American institutions that defend democracy. In their formulation, American institutions they do not control—“the State Department, the defense bureaucracy, the intelligence services, and all of the rest,” for example—are corrupt because they defend the ideas of equality before the law, a free press, religious freedom, and so on. They must be torn down and taken over by true believers who will use the state to enforce their “Christian nationalism.”
In that formulation, the FBI and the Department of Justice are persecuting good Americans who were trying to protect the country on January 6, 2021. And yesterday, Zoe Tillman of Bloomberg reported that Matthew Graves, the U.S. attorney in Washington, D.C., sent a letter on October 28 last year to Chief Judge Beryl Howell warning that as many as 1,200 more people could still face charges in connection with the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Today, the House Republicans announced an investigation, run by Representative Barry Loudermilk (R-GA), into the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol. The January 6th committee asked Loudermilk to talk to it voluntarily to explain why he gave a tour of the Capitol complex on January 5, 2021, a time when the coronavirus had ended public tours. One of the people on that tour showed up on a video the next day threatening lawmakers.
Loudermilk told Scott MacFarlane and Rebecca Kaplan of CBS News that Americans have “very little confidence” in the report of the January 6th committee, “[a]nd there’s good reason. I mean, you even consider what they did to me, the false allegations that they made against me regarding the constituents that I had in my office in the office buildings—accusing me of giving reconnaissance tours.”
Loudermilk, who chairs the House Administration subcommittee on Oversight, says his committee will work “aggressively” to explain why Capitol security failed on January 6 and will seek interviews with people involved, including former House speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). He says his panel will “be honest, show the truth, show both sides.” Representative Norma Torres (D-CA), the top Democrat on the panel, notes that Loudermilk has not informed the Democrats even of the dates on which the committee is supposed to meet.
Politico’s Heidi Przybyla today reported on a February 2023 “bootcamp” for Republican staffers to learn how to investigate the Biden administration. The camp was sponsored by right-wing organizations including the Conservative Partnership Institute, which is led by Trump’s former chief of staff Mark Meadows and other right-wing leaders and which raised $45 million in 2021 alone. Sessions included “Deposing/Interviewing a Witness” and “Managing the News Cycle.”
At one of those investigations yesterday, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), who sits on the Homeland Security committee, said she intended to divulge classified information, saying: “I’m not gonna be confidential because I think people deserve to know.” She claimed that drug cartels had left an explosive device on the border; U.S. Border Patrol chief Raul Ortiz later posted a picture of the “device” and said it was “a duct-taped ball filled with sand that wasn’t deemed a threat to agents/public.”
Meanwhile, the Biden administration continues to administer.
Today, Sanofi, the third major producer of insulin in the United States, announced it will cap prices for insulin at $35 a month. Sanofi, Eli Lilly, and Novo Nordisk produce 90% of the insulin in the U.S. The producers have faced pressure after the Inflation Reduction Act lowered the monthly cost of insulin to $35 a month for those on Medicare.
Well, he is correct, totally and completely. But not in reference to the people he thinks he is referencing. And agreeing with Il Douche leaves me feeling very, very queasy.
March 17, 2023 (Friday)
The International Criminal Court today issued an arrest warrant for Russian president Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin and Maria Alekseyevna Lvova-Belova, Putin’s commissioner for children’s rights, for war crimes: kidnapping Ukrainian children and transporting them to Russia. Russia does not recognize the ICC, which is established at The Hague—the government seat of the Netherlands—and for its part, the Russian government claims its deportation program is humanitarian and patriotic. The international assessment that Putin and one of his top officials have personally engaged in war crimes drives another wedge between Putin and the rest of the Russian people as over time his inability to interact successfully with the rest of the world will have growing consequences for the people at home,
The arrest warrant is unlikely to put Putin in custody any time soon. But an official charge of war crimes will make it harder for other leaders and countries to associate with the Russian regime. Chinese president Xi Jinping is scheduled to travel to Russia next week for his first visit since Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine. Suddenly, that visit, which was fraught enough to begin with, has become more complicated.
Russia promptly announced that Putin and Xi will sign accords ushering in a “new era” of ties, while China’s foreign ministry called the trip “a visit for peace.” But the trip, coming after recent evidence that China has been supplying Russia with war materials, means its involvement with Russia could lead to sanctions against China, a hit that its currently fragile economy can’t easily absorb.
That the warrant focuses on children is also significant. Of the 123 countries that are parties to the Rome Statute that created the International Criminal Court, 33 are African, 19 are in the Asia-Pacific region, 18 are in Eastern Europe, 28 are in Latin America and the Caribbean, and 25 are in Western Europe and elsewhere. All nations care about children, but the trafficking of children to serve as soldiers, sex slaves, drug mules, and so on, is an especially sensitive issue for many of the parties to the Rome Statute.
The international assessment that Putin has engaged in war crimes is significant in the United States as well, even though the U.S. is not a signatory to the Rome Statute. The American right wing has held up Putin and his attack on the secular values of democracy as a model, saying that his rejection of LGBTQ rights, for example, and his alleged embrace of Christianity show how a modern nation can reclaim what they see as traditional virtue. Putin’s arrest warrant for war crimes, centered in crimes against children, will make it harder to spin his authoritarianism as a virtue, especially as they claim their policies are designed to protect children.
The right-wing rejection of democracy was on display at a meeting of the Federalist Society in early March. Politico’s Ian Ward covered the meeting. The Federalist Society organized in the 1980s to argue that the civil rights decisions of the past several decades corrupted democracy because liberal judges were “legislating from the bench” against the wishes of actual voters. The society’s members claimed to stand for judicial restraint.
But now that their judges are on the bench, they have changed their philosophy. Last summer, after a Supreme Court stacked with Federalist Society members overturned the right to abortion, voters have tried to protect that right in the states. Now, according to Ward, the Federalist Society appears to be shifting away from the idea of judicial restraint in the face of popular votes and toward the idea that judges should “interpret the Constitution” in ways right-wing Americans support. They are quick to claim that democracy is not the answer: it would result, they say, in the tyranny of the majority.
That abandonment of democracy is about more than just voting their folks into office. Right-wing figures frustrated by the secular values of democracy—religious freedom, companies that respond to markets without interference by the state, academic freedom, public schools, free speech, equality before the law—want to restore what they consider human virtue by using the state to enforce their values.
Because they think all aspects of the modern U.S. have been corrupted by liberal democracy, people on the far right are eager to destroy those institutions and replace them. When Trump said, as he did yesterday, that “the greatest threat to Western civilization today is not Russia,” he was echoing this ideology to mobilize his followers (even though his concerns are probably less to do with civilization than with his legal issues). His call for firing “deep staters” and reconstituting “the State Department, the defense bureaucracy, the intelligence services, and all of the rest” is an explicit call to radicalize our government.
Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security advisor, endorsed Trump’s worldview, saying “Trump is absolutely right, our greatest threat currently is right here at home. We must ‘fundamentally change’ by severely reforming the government deep state bureaucracy. They (among many parts of our USG[overnment]) represent a menace to our way of life.” (Flynn’s ties to Russia forced him out of office, and he pleaded guilty to lying about them to the FBI; Trump pardoned him.)
Flynn has been on a far-right road tour across America since shortly after Trump left office, recruiting an “Army of God” to put Christianity at the center of American life and institutions. “At this ReAwaken America Tour, Jesus is King [and] President Donald J. Trump is our president,” a co-organizer, Clay Clark, said.
Kiera Butler of Mother Jones today explained how Flynn and his conspiracy-minded supporters have leveled a hate campaign against Sarasota Memorial Hospital in Sarasota, Florida, accusing it of killing Covid patients by denying them the horse-deworming drug ivermectin. They have organized a group called The Hollow 2A to help “Americans gather to lawfully take back our country” with guns and activism at the local level. Along with two other groups, they are planning to swamp the hospital board meeting on Monday, acting as a groundswell of local activists protesting hospital malpractice when, in fact, they have joined forces to attack a hospital that adheres to guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a government agency.
Today Ohio joined five other Republican-dominated states—Louisiana, Alabama, West Virginia, Missouri, and Florida—in leaving the Electronic Registration Information Center, a national data-sharing consortium that updates national voter rolls. Right-wing election deniers say that the bipartisan ERIC is controlled by left-wing groups that enable fraud. Those still belonging to ERIC deny all of the accusations and point out that getting rid of ERIC would get rid of one of the country’s most powerful tools for stopping individuals from voting multiple times, as a number of people from Florida’s The Villages did in 2020.
In a sworn affidavit today, the top lawyer for the Capitol Police said that neither he nor the police chief was informed that anyone other than House members would see the video footage from January 6, 2021, that House speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) permitted Fox News Channel personality Tucker Carlson and his staff to review. Republicans also ignored the Capitol Police’s repeated requests to review and approve all of the footage that Carlson used on his show. Carlson tried to present the attack on the Capitol as a tourist visit as part of his narrative that the FBI and the Department of Justice are corrupt.
But the attempt to destroy the fabric of our government has not yet succeeded. Today, in one of her last rulings before stepping down, Chief Judge Beryl Howell of the D.C. District Court ordered Trump attorney Evan Corcoran to testify in the investigation into Trump’s handling of classified documents. Howell agreed with Department of Justice prosecutors that discussions between Trump and Corcoran met the threshold for the crime-fraud exception, meaning that they are not covered by attorney-client privilege because they were part of a crime.
Meanwhile, CNN’s John Miller, as well as journalists from many other outlets, reports that sources in law enforcement are telling them that “senior staff members from the Manhattan district attorney’s office, the New York State Court Officers—who provide security at the state Supreme Court building in lower Manhattan—and the New York Police Department” have been meeting all week to prepare for a possible indictment of the former president, as early as next week.
March 18, 2023 (Saturday)
Rumors that he is about to be indicted in New York in connection with the $130,000 hush-money payment to adult film star Stormy Daniels have prompted former president Donald Trump to pepper his alternative social media site with requests for money and to double down on the idea that any attack on him is an attack on the United States.
The picture of America in his posts reflects the extreme version of the virtual reality the Republicans have created since the 1980s. The United States is “THIRD WORLD & DYING,” he wrote. “THE AMERICAN DREAM IS DEAD.” He went on to describe a country held captive by “CRIMINALS & LEFTIST THUGS,” in which immigrants are “FLOODING THROUGH OUR OPEN BOARDERS [sic], MANY FROM PRISONS & MENTAL INSTITUTIONS,” and where the president is “SURROUNDED BY EVIL & SINISTER PEOPLE.” He told his supporters to “SAVE AMERICA” by protesting the arrest he—but no one else—says is coming on Tuesday.
Trump’s false and dystopian portrait of the nation takes to its logical conclusion the narrative Republicans have pushed since the 1980s. Since the days of Reagan, Republicans have argued that people who believe that the government should regulate business, provide a basic social safety net, protect civil rights, and promote infrastructure are destroying the country by trying to redistribute wealth from hardworking white Americans to undeserving minorities and women. Now Trump has taken that argument to its logical conclusion: the country has been destroyed by women, Black Americans, Indigenous people, and people of color, who have taken it over and are persecuting people like him.
This old Republican narrative created a false image of the nation and of its politics, an image pushed to a generation of Americans by right-wing media, a vision that MAGA Republicans have now absorbed as part of their identity. It reflects a manipulation of politics that Russian political theorists called “political technology.”
Russian “political technologists” developed a series of techniques to pervert democracy by creating a virtual political reality through modern media. They blackmailed opponents, abused state power to help favored candidates, sponsored “double” candidates with names similar to those of opponents in order to split their voters and thus open the way for their own candidates, created false parties to create opposition, and, finally, created a false narrative around an election or other event that enabled them to control public debate.
Essentially, they perverted democracy, turning it from the concept of voters choosing their leaders into the concept of voters rubber-stamping the leaders they had been manipulated into backing.
This system made sense in former Soviet republics, where it enabled leaders to avoid the censorship that voters would recoil from by instead creating a firehose of news until people became overwhelmed by the task of trying to figure out what was real and simply tuned out.
But it also fit nicely into American politics, where there is a long history of manipulating voters far beyond the usual political spin. As far back as 1972, Nixon’s operatives engaged in what they called “ratf*cking,” dirty tricks that amounted to political sabotage of their opponents. The different elements of that system became a fundamental part of Republican operations in the 1990s, especially the use of a false narrative spread through talk radio and right-wing television.
More recently, we have seen blackmail (former representative Madison Cawthorn [R-NC] blamed his own party for the release of compromising photos); the use of state power to help candidates (through investigations, for example); double candidates (a Florida Republican won a seat in the state legislature in 2020 after a sham candidate with the same name as the Democratic candidate siphoned voters); and the deliberate creation of a false political reality.
Indeed, David Klepper at AP News reported just yesterday that Russian social media accounts are up to their old tricks in the U.S., pushing the idea that federal authorities have been lying about the true impact of the East Palestine, Ohio, train derailment because they want to divert U.S. money from problems at home to Ukraine. “Biden offers food, water, medicine, shelter, payouts of pension and social services to Ukraine! Ohio first! Offer and deliver to Ohio!” one of those accounts posted.
So the United States has had its own version of political technology that overlaps with the Russian version, and it has led to the grim picture Trump is portraying in his attempt to rile up his supporters to protect him.
But here’s what I wonder: What happens when people who have embraced a virtual world begin to figure out it’s fake?
Russians are having to come to grips with their failing economy, world isolation, and rising death rates as President Vladimir Putin throws Russian soldiers into the maw of battle without training or equipment. Now they have to deal with the fact that the International Criminal Court has indicted their president for war crimes. Will they rally around their leader, slide away, or turn against him?
In the United States, MAGA Republicans have been faced with evidence released in the Dominion Voting Systems defamation case against the Fox News Corporation that shows Fox News Channel personalities lied to them. Now those who have cleaved to Trump have to face that he is asking them to risk their freedom to oppose his arrest for paying $130,000 to an adult film actress to keep quiet about their sexual encounter, hardly a noble cause. And the last time he asked people to defend him, more than 1,000 of them—so far—faced arrest and conviction, while he went back to playing golf and asking people for money.
Tonight, Erica Orden of Politico reported that Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg emailed his employees to say “we do not tolerate attempts to intimidate our office or threaten the rule of law in New York.” He told them: “Our law enforcement partners will ensure that any specific or credible threats against the office will be fully investigated and that the proper safeguards are in place so all 1,600 of us have a secure work environment.” He also noted, without mentioning specific cases, that his office has been coordinating with the New York Police Department and with the New York court system during certain ongoing investigations.
Some of Trump’s radical supporters have taken to social media to make a plan for surrounding Mar-a-Lago and protecting Trump with firearms, but others appear to be more eager for someone else to show up than to do so themselves.
Ali Alexander, who helped to organize “Stop the Steal” rallies to try to overturn the 2020 presidential election, wrote to his supporters today: “Previously, I had said if Trump was arrested or under the threat of a perp walk, 100,000 patriots should shut down all routes to Mar-a-Lago…. Now I’m retired. I’ll pray for him though!”
March 19, 2023 (Sunday)
I am madly reviewing the copyediting on the new book and was ever so pleased that the day was mostly quiet, so I could post a photo with a clear conscience.
But I have had half an eye all day on the increasingly eye-popping messages appearing on a Twitter knock-off social media site from a man in Florida who appears to be getting more jittery by the minute.
Not my usual contemplative image this week, but this one was so perfect under the circumstances I just had to post it…
See you all tomorrow.
[Photo, “Gaggle,” by Peter Ralston]