Dec 5, 2019

Barron Trump gets caught in the storm.

Barron Trump gets caught in the storm.

Also, a question about designating the cartel a "terrorist organization."

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Today’s read: 7 minutes.

I’m covering the Barron Trump controversy, a great question about Mexico’s drug cartels and the fall of Duncan Hunter.

Photo: The White House

At the top.

  • The U.S. is considering sending 14,000 more troops and dozens of ships to the Middle East to counter Iran, a move that would double our troop presence in the region. Trump, who ran on reducing foreign entanglements, has become convinced of Iran’s danger and the need to defend Israel, according to reports. The Wall Street Journal has the story. Click.

Also: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made an announcement this morning that impeachment against Trump would be moving forward, and she asked the House Judiciary Committee to move forward with drafting articles of impeachment. Pelosi struck a somber tone in her statement:

Reminder: No Tangle tomorrow.

Tangle hits your inbox Monday-Thursday, with the occasional Friday special. Barring any big, breaking news, you won’t hear from me until Monday. Enjoy your weekend!

New Biden ad.

Yesterday, Joe Biden seized on footage of world leaders laughing about Trump and turned it into a new advertisement. Despite all the attacks on Biden, his poll numbers remain steady. And ads like this could do a lot to bring together a moderate coalition around him —>

What D.C. is talking about.

Barron Trump. Yesterday, when I sent Tangle out around 12:30pm, I noted that Professor Pamela Karlan was quickly shaping up to be a new hero on the left. She spent the early part of the hearing clearly laying out how Trump’s behavior constituted an impeachable offense. But by late afternoon, she had stepped onto a landmine. During questioning, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee asked Karlan about the differences between “kings that the framers were afraid of and the president’s conduct today.” Karlan responded: "Kings could do no wrong, because the king’s word was law. And contrary to what President Trump has said, Article 2 does not give him the power to do anything he wants. And I’ll just give you one example that shows you the difference between him and a king, which is: The Constitution says there can be no titles of nobility, so while the president can name his son Barron, he can’t make him a baron.”

What the right is saying.

Immediately, Karlan was accused of “attacking” Barron Trump. White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham said it was “classless,” and described Karlan as using a “teenage boy who has nothing to do with this joke of a hearing (and deserves privacy) as a punchline.” Vice President Pence said the hearing “reached a new low.” TPUSA founder Charlie Kirk said she “shamelessly” attacked a 13-year-old. “That is the left,” he added. “They don’t care about people, children, or America, only destroying Trump.” Mike Cernovich, the popular right-wing blogger who has recently been critical of Trump, said “As much of a failure as Trump has been, today is a reminder why the far left must never have power. Pamela Karlan targeted a 13 year old boy. That’s who they are and they must lose the next election for our [sic] families safety.” Then, Melania Trump took the extremely rare step of chiming in and threw gasoline on the fire:

What the left is saying.

The backlash to the backlash was intense. #FakeOutrage was trending on Twitter within hours, as was #BeBestMyAss (Melania Trump has adopted the slogan “Be Best” as part of her anti-bullying campaign, which is often mocked by the left). MSNBC analyst Matthew Miller said “give me a break, people. Karlan wasn’t attacking Barron Trump, or making a joke at his expense, or dragging him into politics. The mere mention of his name as a play on words to make a legitimate point is none of those things. You don’t have to fall for every bad faith attack.” Others immediately began sharing two-month-old tweets from Trump, who used his account to mock 16-year-old Greta Thunberg. Some also argued that Karlan’s comments, which were actually rather benign, did little to draw Barron into politics. On the other hand, the barrage of conservatives invoking his name to attack Karlan kept Barron squarely in the limelight, ultimately doing the very thing they were ostracizing Karlan for.

My take.

Politics are insufferably dumb and hypocritical. I hesitated to even write about this because it’s such a pointless story, but it really is a great example of why so many people can’t stand either party or their bad faith attacks (and why so many important stories get drowned out). Karlan, who once said she had to cross the street because she couldn’t stand to walk past Trump Tower, obviously loathes the president. She is, by any measure, a raging partisan. Pretending otherwise is absurd. But invoking Barron’s name is not attacking him, and the joke or pun or whatever point she was trying to make was not at Barron’s expense. Was it a bad look to even use his name during these hearings? Sure. But real attacks on the president’s children actually happen. Rush Limbaugh compared a pre-teen Chelsea Clinton to a dog. A GOP aide was fired for criticizing Malia and Sasha Obama’s “class” for wearing skirts when they were teenagers. Those are attacks. And the left’s response was crap, too: Barron Trump is not Greta Thunberg. Trump’s attacks on Thunberg were ugly, mean and beneath what any citizen should do — let alone the president. But Greta is a public figure with 3 million Twitter followers who puts herself on the global stage every day. Barron is a young boy vying for privacy who hasn’t chosen this public life for himself (yet). All in all, we just wasted a whole news cycle where more important things could have been covered. But, alas, I’m committed to covering “what D.C. is talking about,” and for the last 24 hours, this has — incredibly — been it.

A story that matters.

This week, California Rep. Duncan Hunter pled guilty to a federal corruption charge that involved using his campaign funds for personal use. For years, Hunter had denied the charges and said it was a “political witch hunt.” But the story was broken open by a local, investigative journalist from the San Diego Tribune who wrote this story in 2016 detailing bizarre use of campaign funds on video games. As it turned out, Hunter had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and everything from flights for a pet bunny to travel arrangements for his mother. Hunter is now expected to resign and could do jail time. But all of it happened because of a well-funded and well-sourced local reporter who didn’t believe Hunter’s denials. It’s a powerful example of local journalism. You can read more here.

Your questions, answered.

Q: I’d love to see you cover (or just get your thoughts on) this thing where Trump might categorize Mexican cartels as terrorist organizations. I hate to agree with him, but I think that the “small” issue of Mexican sovereignty aside, it could be a really positive step forward towards fixing some of the issues in Mexico and Latin America which also just so happen to contribute tremendously to the current immigration crisis. I know it could be a fairly imperial move against our southern neighbor, but I think the recent event in Culiacán illustrates that the Mexican government is A. Too corrupt to ever be successful and B. Perhaps out of their depth if they are being outgunned and forced to retreat by the drug cartel.

- Will, Taos, NM

Tangle: This is one of the more fascinating questions in politics right now, and I’m surprised it’s not getting more attention. There is a desperation to the situation in Mexico that makes me feel for your position — especially considering the seemingly inadequate Mexican government. It’s absolutely true that they seem outgunned, and 2019 is looking like it will be the most violent year of the drug war yet.

One of the most common arguments against declaring the Mexican cartel a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) is that the cartel is not political. It’s a crime organization, while terrorist organizations like Al-Qaeda are political in nature. The argument is basically founded on the idea that terrorist organizations try to form a government coalition, gain government power or create schools and religious institutions while the Mexican cartel is interested in money and crime. There is some truth to this, but it’s also true that in many places in Mexico the cartel is functionally acting as the government, the police, the judge and jury. So while they may not have explicit political ambitions, many drug cartels are functionally in control of areas in Mexico the same way terrorist organizations have strangeholds on regions in north Africa or the Middle East.

All that aside, though, my real concern is the repercussions (intentional or not) of such a designation. For one, Trump could use a terrorist designation on the cartel to re-allocate even more money to a border wall (I am very, very opposed to a wall on our southern border). It also puts options on the table in Mexico that make me quite nervous: drone strikes, ground troops, and the punishments for anyone “aiding” and abetting those terrorists. For example, that means U.S. gun store owners whose weapons end up with the cartel could suddenly be at risk of prison sentences or punishment. All of this hits on your concerns about Mexico sovereignty, concerns which I think are very, very real.

Another less-spoken about repercussion is how the cartel might react. Right now, the cartel actually fears the designation. For Trump, that may be enough reason to move ahead with it — thinking I don’t necessarily fault him for. But the cartel fear the designation enough that they actively avoid being associated with other terrorist organizations. One of the myths about the cartel, despite how violent and horrific it is, is that they have coordinated with real foreign terrorist organizations.

In fact, they fear the terrorist designation enough that they actively avoid being associated with other terrorist organizations (despite claims that Mexican cartel members work with terrorists, there is no evidence that ever happens). But if Trump labels them as a terrorist organization, does their incentive change? Does the cartel suddenly decide they lose nothing by aiding terrorist organizations if the money is right? It seems like a totally reasonable outcome.

There’s also the strategic nature of such a move. Presumably, Trump would use this designation to send U.S. drones or special forces into Mexico to kill off members of the cartel, especially their leaders. That kind of operation is called a “Kingpin Strategy,” and it’s the sort of thing we have done in the Middle East (see: killing Osama bin Laden) to upend terrorist groups. But we tried the strategy with drug groups in the 1990s, and all the evidence we have is that it doesn’t work. Jeremy Kryt wrote poignantly about this in The Daily Beast. He also interviewed a security expert from Mexico.

“The Kingpin Strategy works very well with terrorist organizations, but not too well with criminal organizations,” Mexico security analyst Alejandro Hope said. “When you decapitate a terrorist organization—say you take down Osama bin Laden—then you’re creating a void within the organization and it will often collapse.” There is a political, mystical leadership element at the top. “When you do it with a criminal organization, you’re just opening a business opportunity for someone else.”

In other words: kill a cartel leader, and the vacuum simply creates more fighting and violence to replace him. It’s not an effective way to stop the cartel, and it’s definitely not an effective way to reduce violence.

Finally, there are ordinary Mexicans themselves. The government doesn’t want this, as they feel it will impugn on their sovereignty like you noted. And the Mexican people don’t seem to want this, either. In fact, after the nine Mormon Americans were killed in Mexico last month (which set off all the talk about this designation) a social media campaign launched for the Mormon families in Mexico to leave, not for more Americans to come. Of course, I don’t think Americans in Mexico should be caving to violence there and coming home, but it seems worth noting that there is widespread opposition to such a designation from Mexican citizens, who are more desperate than anyone to stop cartel violence.

According to Bloomberg, Trump is meeting with officials tomorrow to make a decision about this designation. It’s not totally clear what he’ll do and a lot of lobbying is still going on. I certainly don’t fault him for considering the move, as the violence in Mexico is very obviously out of control and putting both innocent Americans and innocent Mexicans in far too much danger. All of that, though, doesn’t seem to change the reality that a terrorist designation could very well make the situation worse, not better.


  • 22.5%. Bernie Sanders share of college voters’ support, up 7 percent since September, according to an Axios poll.
  • 15.9%. Elizabeth Warren’s share of college voters’ support, down 3.6 percent since September.
  • 17.3%. Donald Trump’s share of college voters’ support, down .1% since September.
  • 40%. The percentage of likely voters in California who view Mike Bloomberg unfavorably, one of the worst ratings of any candidate.
  • 15%. The percentage of likely voters in California who viewed Bloomberg favorably.
  • 24%. The percentage of likely voters in California who said Bernie Sanders was their first choice pick in the Democratic primary, best of any candidate.

Have a nice day.

YouTube says it has reduced the time its users spend on conspiracy theories and “miracle medical claim” videos by 70 percent. The numbers haven’t been verified by an outside source, but it’s a positive development in YouTube’s fight to reduce the promotion of “borderline content” that promotes things like flat-earth conspiracy theories or fake medical advice. You can read more about their efforts here.

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