Plus, do presidents always go after their predecessors?
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 — then “my take.” You can read Tangle for free, subscribe for Friday editions and you can reach me anytime by replying to this email. If someone sent you this email, they’re asking you to sign up. You can do that by clicking here.
Today’s read: 13 minutes.
The latest Biden nominations, a question about presidential revenge, and an awesome story about… aliens.
In yesterday’s numbers section, I wrote this statistic: “5.1. The number of points New York State swung toward Donald Trump between 2016 and 2020.” In fact, this should have said “The number of points New York State swung against Donald Trump between 2016 and 2020.” The full picture I was trying to paint was that New York City swung 7.6 percentage points toward Trump while the rest of the state swung 5.1 points away from him — a pretty remarkable, narrative-busting statistic, in my opinion.
This is the 22nd Tangle correction in its 67-week existence and the first correction since… yesterday. I track corrections in an effort to be transparent and will never stop counting them even though I truly do hate making mistakes.
- A 90-year-old British woman named Margaret Keenan became the first person in the world to be inoculated with the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine yesterday. Shortly after, an 81-year-old man named William Shakespeare (no kidding) became the second.
- Donald Trump isn’t just fielding requests for pardons, but considering giving them out “like Christmas gifts” to people who haven’t even asked, Axios’s Jonathan Swan reports.
- Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is softening on his opposition to another round of stimulus checks to Americans, according to Politico. President Trump supports sending another round of direct payments out in any new COVID-19 relief bill.
- President Trump called a Pennsylvania state House Speaker and asked for help in overturning the election results, the third state where he’s directly tried to intervene.
- A suspected Chinese spy has been cultivating relationships with politicians in what U.S. officials believe was a political intelligence operation, according to a year-long investigation by Axios.
What D.C. is talking about.
Joe Biden’s cabinet. Yesterday, Biden announced that he was nominating retired four-star Army general Lloyd J. Austin III to be his secretary of defense. Austin is a former commander of the American military effort in Iraq and was a top figure at the Pentagon before his 2016 retirement — heading the U.S. Central Command, which oversees Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and Syria. General Austin, if confirmed, would also become the first African-American to lead the 1.3 million active-duty troops in the United States.
Biden also announced on Monday that he had picked California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to head the Department of Health and Human Services, which will play a critical role in rolling out the coronavirus vaccine and addressing the pandemic. Becerra is a former House Democrat and had a role in helping pass the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. As California Attorney General, he was an outspoken defender of the law. Becerra’s mother was born in Mexico and his father was raised there, and he’ll become the first Latino to ever lead the department.
Finally, Biden also announced Neera Tanden as director of the Office of Management and Budget. Tanden previously ran the center-left think tank Center for American Progress, and her position at OMB would give her influence over how the federal government might prioritize its spending. But Tanden’s confirmation is no sure thing. She’s made enemies on the left and right over the last few years, and is perhaps the most controversial nominee to date.
Biden made several other picks for his administration this week, including a new CDC Director (Harvard infectious disease expert Dr. Rochelle Walensky) and a team of economic advisors, but we’re going to focus on these three and why they are the ones with the most influence.
What the left is saying.
The reactions have been mixed to these three picks. There is no strong consensus on the left, and plenty of criticism to match whatever enthusiasm there is.
The Los Angeles Times editorial board, which has covered Becerra for years, wrote the definitive piece supporting him as HHS secretary. While the board acknowledged that “his background is in law and politics, not healthcare,” it also argued he’s the right choice for a number of reasons — “both practical and symbolic.” Since he was “born in Sacramento to working-class parents who were raised in Mexico, Becerra would be the first Latino to lead HHS if he’s confirmed by the Senate. His background gives him valuable insight into underserved Americans.”
Most importantly, though, the board argued Becerra has experience overseeing a sprawling department as California’s attorney general. “His work defending the ACA and how it’s been implemented in California position Becerra well to advance Biden’s goal of not just repairing the damage done by the Trump administration, but building on the law to make coverage available and affordable to more Americans. Say goodbye to the legal contortions HHS went through trying to knock more people off Medicaid, deny contraceptive coverage to more women, promote junk insurance plans and let healthcare providers discriminate against LGBTQ Americans. Say hello to renewed efforts to promote the ACA’s subsidized insurance coverage, persuade states to extend Medicaid to more low-income residents, narrow the racial gap in healthcare outcomes and create a public alternative to private health insurance plans.”
Some criticized the Gen. Lloyd J. Austin pick, including The New York Times’ Jim Golby, who noted that he was serving at the Pentagon just four years ago — an unusually brief time in retirement before taking on a role like Defense Secretary.
“It is only the third time a president has requested a waiver since Congress passed the National Security Act in 1947, which requires a prospective secretary to wait seven years after ending active duty as a commissioned officer,” Golby wrote. “General Austin is a capable and respected former commander of Central Command, but he retired only in 2016. That’s not long enough: A civilian — not a recently retired general — should lead the Pentagon… The Pentagon now needs to re-establish traditional national security processes and return to a sense of normalcy. President-elect Biden no doubt will want to streamline civilian oversight of war plans, increase transparency surrounding military operations and chart a new and perhaps very different vision for the defense budget. But appointing another retired general to lead the Pentagon will not help return things to normal.”
While some moderate Democrats supported Tanden, a Clinton loyalist, as the pick to head the OMB, the progressive wing was infuriated. Walker Bragman wrote in Jacobin that “the Neera Tanden pick is even worse than you thought.”
“President-elect Joe Biden will reportedly nominate a White House budget director who has been one of the country’s most prominent critics of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and who has previously backed Social Security cuts,” Bragman wrote. “During the Democratic primary, Biden faced scrutiny and criticism over his four-decade record of pushing cuts to Social Security. The Sanders camp seized on resurfaced videos of Biden promoting cuts and spending freezes over the years. Biden responded to these attacks by supporting an expansion of Social Security and by falsely claiming that he’d never sought to cut the program.”
What the right is saying.
The right has been more critical of these three picks than any others so far — with particular ire reserved for Becerra and Tanden.
In The National Review, John McCormack wrote that Biden had picked a “culture warrior” to run the most important health care department in the middle of a pandemic.
“What are Becerra’s qualifications to run the most important federal agency at the peak of the worst pandemic in a century?” he asked. “Becerra, a former congressman, has no experience working at HHS and no medical background. He has never been chief executive of a state, or even of a large, complex organization… Becerra’s chief credentials are protecting the Affordable Care Act from (benign) legal threats and being ‘vocal’ about ‘fighting for women’s health.’”
“To translate the Times, the primary reason why Becerra was selected is the issue of abortion,” he said. “Biden ran on a platform of bringing the country together. Becerra is uniquely ill-suited to accomplish that task at HHS. If a Republican president — in the middle of a pandemic — selected a culture warrior with no experience of working at HHS or of governing a state, the blowback from Congress and the press would be intense.”
In The Washington Examiner, Tiana Lowe argued that Biden was “breaking another norm” with his selection of a military man for secretary of defense. Although Trump also asked for a waiver to pick Gen. Jim Mattis, she argued that Democrats “voted overwhelmingly to outmaneuver a decades-old rule simply because they considered Trump so outlandish and only a man like Mattis capable of curbing his caprice.” Austin, on the other hand, will force Congress to consider recalibrating this norm.
“On the one hand, despite his Democratic pedigree, Austin warned the Obama administration that Iran's activities didn't change after the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” she said of his history. “He also warned Obama that a full withdrawal from Afghanistan could leave a disastrous power vacuum. On the other hand, Austin's role in Obama's disastrous Syria rebel program could prove a nonstarter for Republicans. Furthermore, Austin comes with all the same ties to the commercial defense industry that besieged Michele Flournoy, the former front-runner for the job.”
On Neera Tanden, the right is incensed, mostly over Tanden’s long history of tweeting angrily about Republicans. Jim Geraghty argued that “Wherever you stand on the political spectrum, you can find a reason to dislike her,” noting progressives dislike her because her organization’s center has taken “nearly $2.5 million from the United Arab Emirates to fund its National Security and International Policy initiative, or her hosting of an interview of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, or her Twitter fights, or her former employees who say she’s a bad leader.”
“And Republican senators are likely to remember every last attack she’s ever made against them,” he said. “Not everyone in Washington likes [the] other nominees, but they aren’t verbal bomb-throwers who have made a lot of enemies on Capitol Hill the way Tanden has… Is it possible Biden or someone on his team is shrewd enough to nominate Tanden as a lightning rod, and to ensure Republican senators focus their attention on an OMB director nominee, instead of other cabinet nominees?”
There’s a lot to unpack in each pick here, so I’ll take them one by one.
Xavier Becerra: I’m closer to the right’s position than the left’s here. If Becerra had been tapped for attorney general, I think I would have found myself quite supportive. I love the idea of someone with his background — growing up in a lower-income minority community — overseeing the Justice Department. He has a tremendous personal story and he’s served as California's attorney general. When it comes to legal defenses, he’s got a compelling record of protecting programs Americans support and he’s got the right temperament, an empathic mindset and (nearly) flawless credentials to be the top cop in the country. His selection as Attorney General would have given me real hope for some badly needed criminal justice reform.
But HHS? On top of having no medical background whatsoever, he also has zero experience regulating drug and insurance markets, which is perhaps the single most important task he’ll be faced with (after addressing the pandemic). What is more important than health insurance prices or the cost of medical care and prescription drugs right now? Besides “the economy,” which is a general blanket issue anyway, I struggle to think of anything more critical. This pick makes zero sense to me — and I’m not alone. According to The New York Times, some medical experts who were pushing Biden to tap someone with public health expertise were “astounded” by the selection, and not in a good way.
Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III: I’ve got to be honest… concerns over a retired general serving as Defense Secretary before he’s spent the required seven years in retirement feel — how do I say it? — very quaint to me after what we’ve seen in the Trump presidency. Trump, obviously, got the exact same waiver to bring on Gen. Mattis before tearing through fivedefensesecretaries in three years (acting or confirmed) since Mattis, several of whom left office while warning the country how dangerous Trump is. And Austin is the norm-breaking nominee that we’re worried about?
Austin’s record is tough to parse. He’s been right on a few big things and he’s been wrong on a few others. The stipulation to keep people like Austin away from the White House for seven years is a logical one — it’s designed to ensure civilian control over the military, something I care a great deal about. But I’m having a hard time getting my feathers ruffled over a technicality. Austin is qualified, Biden knows the military apparatus intimately, and I don’t see much cause for concern.
Neera Tanden: It’s tough to imagine a worse pick for anything. And I’m not saying that because she’s said mean things about Republicans or Sanders supporters on Twitter — which I couldn’t care less about. Frankly, that’s the most disingenuous attack on her and I’m surprised Trump Republicans, who spend so much time laughing about “liberal tears,” are wasting their time claiming that mean tweets justify sinking a Senate nomination (have they seen the president’s Twitter feed?).
Far more important is Tanden’s record. First of all, she was key to spreading wild conspiracy theories and baseless allegations about why Clinton lost in 2016 — the kind of stuff we’re watching Trump’s top supporters do now. She suggested Democrats encourage electors to buck the will of the people and cast votes for Hillary instead. She claimed Russians had managed to change actual vote totals in the election with zero evidence. As recently as 2019, she suggested that nothing in the widely discredited Steele Dossier had been disproven, an absurd lie.
She has used millions from the United Arab Emirates, a country that employs slave labor to build its cities, in order to fund a progressive think tank. She also took money from Facebook, Google, J.P. Morgan and Michael Bloomberg, all while hiding the identity of many of her donors. In one documented instance, her think tank removed a report about Bloomberg’s surveillance of Muslims in New York after Bloomberg gave a $1 million donation to CAP — the very essence of the corporate Democratic corruption that has plagued the party with progressive voters and so-called “Trump Democrats.”
Oh, and she’s a warmonger who advocated bombing Libya to take its oil and shoved a reporter (or punched, depending on who you ask) when that reporter pressed Hillary Clinton on her support for the Iraq War while she was running for president in 2008. She even outed a victim of sexual harassment in an all-team meeting at her organization. The Washington Post took all this information in but described her as having “experience clashing with Republican lawmakers” and celebrated the fact her parents “immigrated from India” and that she “would be the first woman of color to oversee the agency,” the kind of identity politics essentialism that rightly infuriates conservatives because it totally ignores her record.
Tanden is a bad pick — one that is utterly confounding in a sea of otherwise predictable if not strong choices from the new administration. If Geraghty is right, and Tanden is some kind of sacrificial lamb, I wouldn’t shed a tear. I just hope Biden takes the cue and doesn’t try to hire her back in an unconfirmed role.
Your questions, answered.
Q: When a new president of the opposite party takes office, how common has it been in the past to adopt the general strategy of “let's undo everything my predecessor has done”? It certainly seemed to be Trump's goal when he took office, and I hear a lot of talk along those lines right now about what Biden should do first. Has this always been the case or is this a new phenomenon?
— Ben, Denver, Colorado
Tangle: It’s pretty common! I think Trump’s mission to undo everything Obama did got a lot of attention because of how frequently — some would say “obsessively” — Trump talked about it. The argument that what Trump is doing is unique is founded mostly in the fact that “whatever Obama did is bad” seems to be the true north star for Trump’s foreign policy. That doesn’t make it wrong (even if it is) in and of itself, but that dynamic certainly exists. But it’s hard to tell whether I feel that way because there’s been so much coverage of it or because Trump genuinely talks more about Obama than Obama ever talked about Bush.
But to frame what Trump is doing as unique to his presidency is somewhat ahistorical. You can go back as far as John Adams and Thomas Jefferson to find the same tension between presidents. Before Adams left office, he’s said to have spent the very last minutes of his presidency trying to create a bulwark of paperwork to slow Jefferson down. Adams’ son, John Quincy Adams, faced a more formidable nemesis in the populist slave owner Andrew Jackson.
Jackson and Adams were basically polar opposites. Adams was a well-read son of a president, scholarly and privileged. Jackson was considered a rugged frontiersman, a stone-cold killer in the military, and the voice of the common man. Adams ridiculed Jackson, wondering aloud if he could even read. He also suggested Jackson’s mother was a “common prostitute.” Jackson accused Adams of having premarital sex with his wife, a grave crime at the time, and claimed he used the White House as a gambling den. The two had a campaign against each other that makes today’s presidential races look rather tame, and when Jackson took over he did everything he could to undo Adams’ legacy.
In Obama’s first term, he did his best to implement a 100-day plan that reversed the actions Bush took as president — like expansions of oil and gas drilling or limits on stem cell research. On Bush’s first day in office in 2001, he reinstated the global gag rule that Clinton had revoked, which prohibited taxpayer money from being given to international groups performing abortions. And so on.
I think what the Obama to Trump handover was really missing were any areas of continued progress on issues where past presidents had success. Nixon enhanced environmental regulations that had been passed before him. Dwight Eisenhower expanded social security and raised the minimum wage in the wake of the Democrats’ New Deal. That sort of thing had been pretty common before this presidency.
The issue now is that the executive branch has more power than ever — so presidents like Bush, Obama and Trump were able to do much of their work through executive orders, which can be overturned by new presidents as easily as they are written. That has left incoming administrations with easy paths to undo the past — paths they seem happy to take.
A story that matters.
The two-shot coronavirus vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech looks to be on the cusp of approval in the United States just a day after the first vaccines were administered in Britain. The Food and Drug Administration released a 53-page review on the vaccine, the first briefing document the agency has put out, and confirmed that it appears to be safe and effective. However, Pfizer has reportedly told the Trump administration it cannot provide substantial numbers of additional doses until late June or July because other countries rushed to buy up most of its supply first — meaning the U.S. government will need Moderna’s vaccine or others in the pipeline to be approved as well in order to hit its goal of inoculating 100 million Americans before the summer.
- 102,148. The number of people hospitalized with coronavirus right now, an all-time high, according to the COVID Tracking Project.
- 1,835,388. The number of coronavirus tests performed in the United States yesterday.
- 180,193. The number of those tests that came back with positive results.
- 31. The number of states where COVID-19 hospitalizations are rising.
- 85%. The percentage of counties with a Whole Foods grocery store that Joe Biden won.
- 32%. The percentage of counties with a Cracker Barrel that Joe Biden won.
- 52-39. Donald Trump’s margin of victory in 2016 in Inyo County, California.
- 48.9-48.7. Joe Biden’s margin of victory in 2020 in Inyo County, California, making it the most pro-Trump county to flip blue in this election.
- 66-33. Hillary Clinton’s margin of victory in 2016 in Zapata, Texas.
- 52-47. Donald Trump’s margin of victory in 2020 in Zapata, Texas, making it the most pro-Clinton county to flip red in this election.
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Recently, a Tangle reader offered a great rule of life to me: everyone gets one conspiracy theory. Maybe you think JFK is alive, or we never landed on the moon, or every NBA game is fixed. It’s okay to have one — but just one — and any more should be a red flag. Well, my conspiracy theory is that aliens are real and UFOs are here and the U.S. government is covering it up (my brother and I have been kicking around the idea of starting a new podcast or newsletter exploring this idea). Well, consider me gleeful to read this hilariously awesome New York Post story about an ex-Israeli space official who told the Israeli paper Yedioth Aharonoth that aliens have reached an agreement with the U.S. government to stay mum on the experiments they’re conducting here on earth.
The official, Haim Eshed, is 87 years old and was the head of Israel’s space program until 2010. He claims the “Galactic Federation” has a base on Mars where American astronauts have already set foot, and that the U.S. government is waiting until Americans can wrap their heads around the idea of aliens to tell us. He even claimed there’s an underground base in the depths of Mars where the aliens have maintained a presence for some time.
“If I had come up with what I’m saying today five years ago, I would have been hospitalized. Wherever I’ve gone with this in academia, they’ve said, ‘The man has lost his mind,'” he reportedly said. “Today they’re already talking differently. I have nothing to lose. I’ve received my degrees and awards, I am respected in universities abroad, where the trend is also changing.”