Sep 14, 2020

A country consumed by fire.

A country consumed by fire.

Plus, a question about Trump and the Nobel Peace Prize.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum. You can read Tangle for free, and you can reach me anytime by replying to this email. If someone sent you this email, they’re asking you to subscribe. You can do that by clicking here.

Today’s read: 13 minutes.

The wildfires crushing the Western United States and a question about whether Trump should get the Nobel Peace Prize. Plus, an important story about cannabis legalization.

A Tangle reader from San Francisco sent in this midday picture they took of the city last week.

Reader feedback.

Dave from Wheeling, Illinois, wrote in with this reaction after reading about the Bob Woodward tapes on President Trump. “As a Trump supporter, I must admit some of this is troubling, and I am starting to suffer from some Trump fatigue. I sure wish my other option was not Biden. I question Joe's fitness for the office in a different way, I think mentally he just is not sharp and this is one of the toughest jobs in the world. I also have a problem with his constant flip flops, the most recent being the mask mandate and fracking.  Not sure how anyone, anywhere on the political spectrum can trust him. I do believe Biden will win, not sure it will even be close, but I’d be lying if I said I was excited, or even happy about it.”

Several readers wrote in about my initial coverage of the wildfires on Thursday, noting that I hadn’t mentioned some of the “forest management” or “fuel management” issues that are making them much worse, too. This is a great callout, and after speaking with a U.S. Forest Service wildfire expert last week I’ll be righting that wrong today.

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On Friday, I published a subscribers-only edition about what would happen if the 2020 election ends in a tie. Here are some reader reactions to it:

  • “OH. MY. GAWD. My head was spinning well before you asked if our heads were spinning. This is so worth the subscription!”
  • “You've outdone yourself on this one, Ike! Thank you so much for this.”
  • “WOW! What a crazy edition. So thorough. So informative. So impressive. So scary and unprecedented! You've outdone yourself, yet again. Can't wait to see what you think of next!”
  • My friend Dave also said, “I don't love today's Tangle, not because it's bad writing or incorrect or anything but just because it feels like silly punditry to me.” Dave can be a real bummer.

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Quick hits.

  1. On Friday, Bahrain announced it was joining the United Arab Emirates in normalizing ties with Israel. The announcement marks another step forward for Israel and Gulf region powers, and serves as a second major victory for President Trump’s foreign policy heading into November. “Trump the peacemaker?” The New York Times asked.
  2. Two Los Angeles County sheriff deputies were shot and critically wounded in an attack that was captured on video. The shooting adds more gas to a burning fire of conflict between police and many of the urban areas they oversee. The shooting comes as civil unrest broke out in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in the wake of police shooting a man who was charging them with a knife.
  3. A Florida appeals court ruled that the state can force ex-felons to pay court fines and fees before they register to vote. Florida voters had passed a measure to restore the right of felons who had served their jail time to vote. In response, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a law saying felons could only get their right to vote back if they paid outstanding fines and penalties. The law was challenged, but for now, hundreds of thousands of Florida voters could be left out of the November election.
  4. Politico reporter Dan Diamond says Trump officials interfered with the CDC reports on COVID-19. Diamond obtained emails showing Trump officials complaining to the CDC about reports on COVID-19 that looked damaging for the president and insisting those reports be changed before being made public. “CDC officials have fought back against the most sweeping changes, but have increasingly agreed to allow the political officials to review the reports and, in a few cases, compromised on the wording, according to three people familiar with the exchanges.”
  5. Former New York mayor and presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg says he will spend at least $100 million in Florida to help elect Joe Biden. Bloomberg has faced increasing criticism for sitting out the election so far after promising to support whoever the Democratic nominee was. Now, he says he’s committing a narrow focus to Florida, since a win there would all but assure Joe Biden the presidency.

What D.C. is talking about.

The wildfires. Across California, Oregon and Washington state, wildfires continued to burn over the weekend — with smoke drifting into major metropolitan areas and harming the air quality in major city centers like Seattle and San Francisco. Nearly a million acres of land have burned in the fires, several communities have been completely destroyed, and the number of dead or missing people is still unknown because rescue crews are struggling to traverse the thick smoke now covering much of the Western United States. At least 35 people have already died, and in Oregon, where some 30 fires are raging, one fire alone has destroyed an area the size of Rhode Island.

“I drove 600 miles up and down the state, and I never escaped the smoke,” Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) said Sunday on ABC. “We have thousands of people who have lost their homes. I could have never envisioned this.”

Millions of people are now being impacted by the smoke alone. The West coast now has four of the world’s 10 most polluted cities simply because of the fires. Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle rank 8th, 6th and 3rd. Portland, Oregon, surrounded by smoke from 30 active fires across the state, now has the worst air quality of any big city on the planet. The NFL nearly canceled a game in San Francisco between the Arizona Cardinals and the 49ers on Sunday because the air quality was too poor.

This week, the entire West Coast is essentially waiting and watching the wind. The weather forecast for the week is more dry weather and high winds, and the wind is expected to change direction. That could mean a clearing of smoke, which is good. But it could also mean a rapid shift in where the fires are heading — something that could once again put firefighters on their heels at a time when many of the fires are yet to be contained. President Donald Trump, who was criticized for not addressing the fires directly until this weekend, is heading to Sacramento County to receive a briefing on Monday.


There’s no debate about the devastation of these fires — nor is there a debate about the importance of slowing them down. Both sides seem to agree that it’s not a single issue making the wildfires worse, and each has made calls for there to be an improvement in forest management — the removal or controlled burning of dead trees, brush and grass — to slow the fires down or at least reduce their devastating effects. However, the focuses differ.

What the right is saying.

The right says blaming the wildfires on climate change is misguided. In a Washington Post op-ed, Julie Parris, a former Oregon Republican lawmaker and a founding member of the Timber Unity Association, wrote that “bad forest policies and political indifference” are behind the raging wildfires in Oregon.

“Gov. Kate Brown (D) blames a ‘wind event’ and climate change for the conflagrations,” Parris wrote. “I’m a seventh-generation Oregonian, and like others who’ve paid attention to what’s been happening here for a long time, I know better. Our state is ablaze for reasons much deeper than weather. For years, we’ve suffered from misguided priorities and dramatic failures of leadership. Now, the bill is coming due.”

Parris argued that for 80 years, Oregon’s forests have been grossly mismanaged — and that mismanagement has intensified recently thanks to urban areas gaining political power and insisting on “preserving the forests as untouchable playgrounds.”

“Since 2001, the state has over prioritized recreation and environmentalist concerns such as ecotourism,” she said. “As a result, Oregon’s forests were allowed to become overgrown, creating fire hazards… Oregon is a state that is losing control. The governor can keep blaming climate change, but that’s no excuse for ignoring problems that have been completely within the state’s ability to manage for a very long time.”

In The Wall Street Journal, Holman Jenkins asked if we were finally seeing wildfire sanity.

“Overnight, apparently there’s nobody who does not understand that climate policy is not an answer to California’s wildfire crisis,” he wrote. “Even the do-gooder, nonprofit news group ProPublica plaintively asks in a headline, ‘They Know How to Prevent Megafires. Why Won’t Anybody Listen?’ The article goes on to assert: ‘The pattern is a form of insanity: We keep doing overzealous fire suppression across California landscapes where the fire poses little risk to people and structures. As a result, wildland fuels keep building up.’”

“I guess when thousands of people might be burned out of their homes,” he added, “it concentrates the mind.”

In The Hill, Bill Imbergamo suggested a solution that would address forest mismanagement and help reduce carbon emissions: clear dead forests and replant them. “Our forests are facing threats from extreme weather and fire, driven at least in part by climate change. Unfortunately, we’ve put our National Forests on the back foot by allowing them to become too dense, making them even more vulnerable to these events. We can give our forests the head start they need on recovery by clearing away damaged trees and getting new ones planted and growing. These new trees will immediately begin removing unwanted carbon from the atmosphere.”

What the left is saying.

They’re (mostly) pointing to climate change. Susanne Rust and Tony Barboza summed up the left’s position nicely in a Los Angeles Times story.

“In 2001, a team of international scientists projected that during the next 100 years, the planet’s inhabitants would witness higher maximum temperatures, more hot days and heat waves, an increase in the risk of forest fires and ‘substantially degraded air quality’ in large metropolitan areas as a result of climate change,” they wrote. “In just the past month, nearly two decades after the third United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report was issued, heat records were busted across California, more than 3 million acres of land burned, and in major metropolitan areas, such as Los Angeles and San Francisco, air pollution has skyrocketed.”

“And the record heat, fires and pollution all have one thing in common: They were made worse by climate change,” Rust and Barboza added. “Their convergence is perhaps the strongest signal yet that the calamity climate scientists have warned of for years isn’t far off in the future; it is here today and can no longer be ignored.”

In The New York Times, Michael Shear and Coral Davenport wrote that President Trump is refusing to face the reality of forest fires because it blows up his own worldview.

“When President Trump flies to California on Monday to assess the state’s raging forest fires, he will come face to face with the grim consequences of a reality he has stubbornly refused to accept: the devastating effects of a warming planet,” they said. “To the global scientific community, the acres of scorched earth and ash-filled skies across the American West are the tragic, but predictable, result of accelerating climate change. Nearly two years ago, federal government scientists concluded that greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels could triple the frequency of severe fires across the Western states.”

Helaine Olen said “the climate-related catastrophes seem all but endless. Last month, a derecho damaged or destroyed half the trees in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Hurricane Laura caused billions of dollars in damage to the Louisiana coast and set off a fire at a chemical plant — a disaster within a disaster. And don’t forget the tropical storm that hit the New York City metropolitan area last month, leaving more than a million without power, some for more than a week.”

“That said, Trump is just an accelerant, not the originator of our woes, environmental or otherwise. In my darkest moments, I suspect that expecting American society, which can’t get a grip on so many issues, to suddenly begin dealing with climate change borders on the delusional. But we need to pay attention and begin to force the administration to take action.”

My take.

Back in 2018, when wildfires were raging through California but not quite on the same scale they are now, Donald Trump took to Twitter to assign blame. “There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor. Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests. Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!”

Twenty years from now, this tweet could be taught in both a journalism and a psychology class. It’s a classic case study in how Trump poisons the well and how he has helped break the conversation in our country. Immediately after his tweet, there were dozens of “fact checks” in almost every news outlet in America. Most of them took on an incredulous tone and came to a declarative conclusion: false. There was also appropriate rage at the president threatening not to send aid to states that were facing a natural disaster, while dozens of people died and thousands saw their homes go up in flames.

And for most Americans on the left, that’s about all they needed to see. Trump said forest fires are caused by forest management and not climate change. Trump threatened to end aid to people in need. Trump is a climate change denier, a liar and evil. And poor forest management is not why wildfires are burning in California and Oregon.

The truth, of course, is a bit more complicated. Trump has repeated his claim many times since 2018, including this weekend at a rally in Pennsylvania when he said “I see again the forest fires are starting. They’re starting again in California. I said, you gotta clean your floors, you gotta clean your forests — there are many, many years of leaves and broken trees and they’re like, like, so flammable, you touch them and it goes up."

Here’s the thing: Trump has a point. Forest management is a huge issue in wildfires, thanks to the millions of dead trees, brush or “fuel” lying across the forest floor from southern California up to Washington. The issue with Trump’s comments, and the discourse that follows them, is that he said “there is no reason” except for forest management — which is a bald-faced lie — and then paired that lie with an absurd threat. Hence the reason fact-checkers felt emboldened to tear his entire comment to shreds. But this is really just another argument being diluted to a this or that dichotomy that is divorced from reality.

I think this headline from the San Francisco Chronicle sums up the truth best: “Are climate change or poor forest management worsening California fires? Yes.”

Last week, I spoke to a researcher from the U.S. Forest Service who is studying wildfires. She made the same point that has now been made in a New York Times article and the aforementioned ProPublica piece: the answer to fire is actually fire. “Fight fire with fire” didn’t become a cliche for no reason — its origins are actually in the firefighting technique of burning controlled fires to stop the spread of bigger ones.

For years, more people have been moving into rural areas across the United States. That has two negative outcomes: it means when small wildfires are burning in remote places near now-populated areas, there is an immediate rush to put them out. It also means wildfires are happening more frequently because humans accidentally start them so often.

But experts on fire have told us repeatedly that naturally occurring fires are part of effective forest management. In fact, they want to start more fires: controlled burns that eat up dead vegetation across the forest so when forest fires happen regularly in the future they don’t turn in to all-consuming infernos that ruin the lives of millions of people.

The U.S. Forest Service scientist I spoke with put it this way: fires get worse when there is dry fuel to eat, lots of wind, and poor preparation. Dry fuel (i.e. dead grass, dried up dead trees, etc.) is a product of both climate change and poor forest management. Wind could be a product of bad luck, and — yes — climate change, that is sending unusually volatile cold fronts and storms throughout the country on a far more regular basis. And poor preparation is when those fires hit areas that don’t have fire lines and/or populations who are ready to evacuate.

1.5 million acres of forest burned every year in California before it was settled in the 1800s, and Native Americans “had for thousands of years harnessed fire to help ensure that the forests where they lived were healthy.” The answers are as old as time but they are not simple — and the solutions are harder to reach every year because of apocalyptic temperature changes, droughts, wind, and dried up land — all tied directly to climate change. When hearing the “other side’s” argument, we’d all be wise to acknowledge they’re right.

Your questions, answered.

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Q: What are your thoughts on Trump’s nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize? Anything and everything with Trump is controversial (by definition now), but I can also see the reasoning for the nomination regarding UAE-Israel deal.

— Matt, Avon, Indiana

Tangle: A number of readers have actually written in asking about this now, so I am excited to address it. Trump has received two nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize, both from conservative Scandinavian politicians. There are thousands of politicians and academics in the world eligible to nominate someone for a Nobel Peace Prize, and Trump’s nominations were “met around the world with a mixture of amusement and dismissal,” as The New York Times put it.

But, contextually speaking, the nominations have some legitimate standing. The deal brokered by the Trump administration between the United Arab Emirates and Israel is a major step toward more stability and perhaps more peace in the Middle East region. The one that followed between Israel and Bahrain is similar, and could signal a cascade of Arab nations about to step into normalizing ties with Israel. Perhaps more important but less well covered was Trump’s role in striking a deal between Kosovo and Serbia, two nations that have been described as “mortal Balkan enemies.”

Will he win? It seems unlikely. The Nobel Peace Prize committee has, traditionally, shown a preference for liberal leaders. But there’s also the simple fact that Trump is just not that well-regarded across the world. Putting American politics aside, the president is derided by most other countries and his intention on pulling America out of global coalitions — from the Paris Climate agreement to the World Health Organization — does not bode well for recognition from a body responsible for identifying those involved in advancing world peace.

As for my opinion, I frankly don’t feel very strongly either way. Though I will say — historically speaking — Trump has a perfectly reasonable case to make. Barack Obama won the Nobel in 2009 for his “efforts” to create world peace. He had been president for all of nine months and was so undeserving of the award compared to past recipients that everyone basically looked at each other in puzzlement. Obama himself said he hadn’t earned it and, according to a memoir, even considered skipping the ceremony because of how uncomfortable the entire affair was for him.

Trump, on the other hand, has been pining for a Nobel since he took office — frequently claiming he has earned it. Along with the Kosovo-Serbia deals and the Israel normalization, Trump has also withdrawn more troops from Afghanistan and Iraq and recently restarted peace talks in Afghanistan. These are serious accomplishments to lean on, but they don’t tell the full story either.

For one, the two most important foreign policy goals for Trump have remained out of his reach. North Korea has not been denuclearized, and negotiations were an abject failure. That’s not unique to Trump, but experts say his frequent praise for Kim Jong Un and his insistence on meeting him publicly gave North Korea more negotiating power than it’s ever had. Tensions have also ratcheted up between China and the U.S., all while China is committing one of the worst human rights violations of our times, and the president has not only done little to step in the way, but reportedly counseled China’s President Xi to go ahead and build the Uigher detention camps, saying it was “the right thing to do.”

Rep. Justin Amash (MI-I) has also taken to calling out the public misconception of Trump as somehow reducing our military footprint. “Antiwar President Donald Trump has launched more air and drone strikes in Somalia over just the last year than Barack Obama did over all eight years, and about as many strikes per year as GWB and Obama combined and totaled from 2002 (war’s start) to January 2017 (inauguration),” he wrote on Twitter recently.

“More American troops are now in the Middle East than at the end of President Obama’s term,” Amash also wrote in January. “The rate of drone strikes is up, too. President Trump is not ending wars; he’s expanding them. He’s not bringing troops home; he’s sending them there.”

And that’s true too. While troops are coming home from some places, they are ramping up in others — and it doesn’t help that the president revoked an Obama-era rule that tracked drone strike deaths.

So, does Trump deserve the Nobel Peace Prize? He’s certainly done enough to create a good-looking press release, but it’s not the full story. Trump’s supporters are right that he’s done more than Obama did in his first nine months in office to win the award, a reality that points to the bias of the people who hand the Nobel out. But if you take Obama out of the picture, it’s tough to make the case for Trump as a legitimate contender.

Personally, my favorite suggestion is to end the Nobel Peace Prize altogether. On 19 different occasions the Nobel has opted not to award anyone the prize, and Graeme Wood recently suggested they should make that permanent. I tend to agree. Wood notes that in 1973 the prize was given to Henry Kissinger, a man responsible for about as much international violence as any other person in American history.

“The record of achievement of the peace laureates is so spotty, and the rationales for their awards so eclectic, that the committee should take a long break to consider whether peace is a category coherent enough to be worth recognizing,” Wood wrote.

A story that matters.

States are plowing forward with the legalization of cannabis, with or without Congress. “Roughly 1 in 3 Americans could have access to legal recreational marijuana if voters approve state ballot initiatives this November,” Politico reports. The House has a planned vote on legalizing cannabis at the federal level later this month, but even if the House measure passes there is no reason to think the Senate will take it up. The bill aims to eliminate federal criminal penalties and erase some marijuana-related offenses. The most likely states to adopt recreational pot legislation this fall are Arizona and New Jersey, where polling shows enough people who favor legalization to get the bills across the finish line.


  • 51%. The percentage of likely voters who think Joe Biden has the mental soundness to serve effectively as president.
  • 47%. The percentage of likely voters who think Donald Trump has the mental soundness to serve effectively as president.
  • 62%. The percentage of likely voters who think Joe Biden has the compassion to serve effectively as president.
  • 44%. The percentage of likely voters who think Donald Trump has the compassion to serve effectively as president.
  • 23%. The percentage of Americans who agree with the statement, “Joe Biden wants to abolish the suburbs.”
  • 54%. The percentage of Americans who intend to vote for Trump who agree with the statement, “Joe Biden wants to abolish the suburbs.”
  • 49%. The percentage of Americans who agree with the statement, “Donald Trump would like to be a dictator.”
  • 34%. The percentage of Americans who disagree with the statement, “Donald Trump would like to be a dictator.”
  • 49 days and 13 hours. The time until the 2020 election, though many voters can request absentee ballots and begin voting this week.

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Have a nice day.

Some American astronomers on Earth say they have discovered what might be signs of life in the toxic atmosphere of Venus. “If the discovery is confirmed by additional telescope observations and future space missions, it could turn the gaze of scientists toward one of the brightest objects in the night sky,” The New York Times reports. “Venus, named after the Roman goddess of beauty, roasts at temperatures of hundreds of degrees and is cloaked by clouds that contain droplets of corrosive sulfuric acid. Few have focused on the rocky planet as a habitat for something living.” Scientists say they have detected phosphine in Venus’s atmosphere with a powerful telescope. Phosphine is considered a “biosignature gas” and is something scientists have long been looking for on other planets like Mars. “This is an astonishing and ‘out of the blue’ finding,” Sara Seager, a planetary scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and one of the authors, told The Times.

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