Jan 20, 2021

The Biden presidency begins.

The Biden presidency begins.

And the Trump presidency ends.

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 or 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: 11 minutes.

A look at where we are as the Joe Biden presidency begins. Plus, a question about John Sullivan.

Screenshot from the inauguration, via New York Times live stream

Quick hits.

  1. 12 members of the National Guard were removed from the inauguration ceremonies for today after being screened by the FBI. (Politico)
  2. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor that the Capitol mob “was fed lies” and “provoked by the president and other powerful people.” (Twitter video)
  3. The United States declared China’s actions against the Uighurs “genocide” and “crimes against humanity,” becoming the first country to level a charge against China for its gross human rights violations. (Axios)
  4. President Trump handed out 143 pardons and sentence commutations, including a pardon of Stephen K. Bannon, who was charged with defrauding Trump supporters in an alleged fundraising effort to build the U.S.-Mexico wall. (Washington Post, subscription)
  5. In brief remarks before departing the White House, President Trump thanked supporters and told them “we will be back in some form.” (The New York Times, subscription)

What D.C. is talking about.

The transition of power. This morning, President Donald Trump boarded Marine One with his family and left the White House for the last time. Shortly before this newsletter was sent out, President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris were sworn into office. Former President Trump heads to Florida without having ever conceded the election and without congratulating President Joe Biden on his victory, though he did wish the new administration “great luck and success.” He’ll also become the first president since 1869 not to attend the inauguration of his successor. Former Vice President Mike Pence, who did not attend Trump’s departure ceremony, attended Joe Biden’s inauguration in the absence of Trump.

Joe Biden becomes the 46th president after nearly 40 years in the Senate and eight years as President Barack Obama’s vice president. His term starts at a tumultuous moment for the country, to say the least. The coronavirus pandemic is still raging, with cases spreading as fast as they ever have and more than 400,000 Americans dead. The economic recovery appears to be slowing, with new unemployment claims rising in recent weeks. Demands for racial equality and reforms to the justice system are louder than they’ve been in decades. Washington D.C. is on lockdown after rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6th. The Senate, at a 50-50 split, is expected to be rife with gridlock. The former president has just been impeached, and a Senate trial on whether to convict him could begin as early as next week.

When he enters the White House, 78-year-old President Biden is expected to respond with an attempt at one of the fastest policy rollouts in U.S. history. He’s aiming to get 100 million vaccine doses out the door, to spend nearly $2 trillion on a third coronavirus stimulus package, launch a giant infrastructure plan, create a pathway to citizenship for 11 million citizens, and undo nearly every executive order signed by his predecessor. He also wants to begin reopening schools across the country and plans to sign 15 executive orders — addressing everything from climate change to racial inequality — all right off the bat.

We’ll be taking a look at Donald Trump’s legacy soon, but today we’re going to get an idea of what the right and left are saying as the Biden presidency begins.

What the right is saying.

The right is expecting many of Trump’s initiatives to be undone, and hoping Biden will hold the line against the progressive wing of the Democratic party.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board asked how Biden will govern, noting that his inauguration will hit on his mission of unity but “his success in that mission will depend on resisting the divisive progressive domination sought by his party’s left.”

“Left to his own political instincts, Mr. Biden could be the man for this moment,” they wrote. “He is a moderate liberal with sympathy for the working class who is inclined to reach across the political aisle. With a 50-50 Senate and a narrow House majority, he also has good practical reason to do so. At 78 years old, he realizes he is likely to serve only one term and could create an admirable legacy as the man who calmed the Trump-era furies. That, at least, is our hopeful case for the Biden years.

“Yet Mr. Biden also comes to power with a Democratic Party whose ascendant progressives have other ideas,” they added. “Their goal is to use the federal government as a battering ram to drive economic and cultural ‘transformation.’ Progressives in the House and Senate, urged on by the Democratic media complex and Silicon Valley, view the defeat of Donald Trump as the opening to assert a new level of government control over the economy and cultural dominance over American society.”

The Washington Examiner editorial board reacted to reports that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were planning to treat California as their “de facto think tank” and place it “center stage again in Washington’s policy arena.”

“If you haven’t noticed, California is circling the drain,” the board wrote. “There has been such a massive outflow of population in recent years that the Golden State — the nickname now seems ironic — is about to lose a congressional seat for the first time in its 170-year history… there are the rolling electricity blackouts, made worse by unrealistic environmental goals for switching to renewable energy. The state with the highest income inequality in the nation now resembles the Third World in more ways than just one.

“State taxes are among the worst in the nation and fall hardest on those who are not well-to-do. It's true that million-dollar earners pay an astonishing marginal income tax rate of 13.3%. What's truly shocking, though, is that people making as little as $60,000 in California pay up to 9.3%, which is higher than the rate millionaires pay in 46 states and the District of Columbia. California’s minimum state sales tax of 7.25% is the nation’s highest, with most city and county governments taking an extra point or two on top of that. In Los Angeles County, expect to pay north of 10% in combined sales tax on any applicable purchases. With the toxic bill known as AB 5, the state Legislature and Gov. Gavin Newsom tried to destroy California’s entire freelance and gig economy last year.”

Marc Thiessen declared that Joe Biden was his president — and took a posture of support for him despite the fact President Trump never received the same from Democrats.

“I didn’t vote for Biden,” he wrote. “I opposed his candidacy and expect that I will oppose a great deal of what he does in office. But starting at noon on Jan. 20, he is president of the United States — and that makes him my president. He deserves a chance to succeed, and we should all hope that he does.

“Democrats never gave Trump that chance. They declared themselves the ‘resistance’ and launched a campaign of obstruction against virtually everything Trump tried to do. They challenged his legitimacy from day one and spent the first two years of his presidency pushing the now-disproved narrative that he had colluded with Russia to steal the election. When that failed, they tried to impeach him anyway. Trump was often his own worst enemy, but no president in my lifetime has faced such a relentless campaign aimed at his destruction… So, when Biden issued his call for unity during his victory speech, declaring that it was ‘time to put away the harsh rhetoric’ and ‘stop treating our opponents as our enemy,’ many on the right said: Oh, now you want unity? After four years of trying to annihilate Trump, now you want us to ‘lower the temperature’ and ‘give each other a chance’? Thanks, but no thanks.

“Here’s the problem with that attitude: It was wrong when Democrats did it to Trump, and it would be wrong for conservatives to do the same to Biden today.”

What the left is saying.

The left is celebrating the end of Trump, and feeling hopeful that a new presidency may usher in a different version of America.

With control of Congress, Spencer Bokat-Lindell is already dreaming about what Democrats can accomplish in the New York Times. The obvious, he noted, is assembling the administration Biden wants and filling potential vacancies on the federal court and Supreme Court. The agenda items “within reach” are another stimulus package, canceling $10,000 in student debt, a climate change plan to get to net zero emissions by 2050, raising taxes on the wealthy and lowering the age of Medicare eligibility from 65 to 60.

“As long as the filibuster exists, some of the most significant elements of the Democratic Party’s agenda are still likely to remain out of reach,” he said. “Here are a few: Banning the production of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, expanding the number of seats on the federal and appellate courts and the Supreme Court, passing the comprehensive immigration legislation that Mr. Biden reportedly plans to introduce that would create a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million unauthorized immigrants living in the country, granting Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico statehood.”

Thomas B. Edsall said we’re about to find out if the United States is still governable or not.

“Joe Biden takes office at noon, even as a block of roughly 35 to 40 million Republican voters remains convinced that his victory on Nov. 3 was illegitimate, despite his capture of a decisive majority of the popular vote and the Electoral College,” he said. “With jubilation in some quarters, rage in others, the electorate is split, 49-50, on whether they are ‘confident that Biden will make the right decisions for the country’s future,’ according to a Jan. 17 Washington Post/ABC News survey, well above Donald Trump’s 38 percent in 2017, but below Barack Obama’s 61 percent in 2009.

“Biden may look battered and worn, but he possesses a rudimentary integrity that has been missing from the Oval Office for the last four years. He faces a staggering array of challenges, not least within Congress and the judiciary on which he will rely to enact and uphold his ambitious agenda.”

In Slate, Susan Matthews wrote that throughout his life, Trump has not suffered any consequences for his misdeeds, making him increasingly shameless. She wrote about the feeling of finally seeing him pay the price for his actions, a feeling many on the left were expressing as Trump left office.

“He gets away with the Central Park Five ad, so he moves on to birtherism and later to ‘very fine people on both sides,’” she wrote. “He uses bankruptcies to his strategic advantage, leveraging them to pay no taxes, and then gets people to sign up for a for-profit university on the presumption that he’s good at business. He wins the top job in government while degrading the very concept of government.

“Except for, maybe, now,” she wrote. “Donald Trump leaving the presidency will be the most dramatic transition in his life. His embarrassment at losing is so great that he cannot even admit that it happened. It’s a reaction both to being rejected and, I think, to what awaits him on the other side. Because when he departs the presidency, he is going to find himself in the middle of an unprecedented number of legal quagmires and financial disasters—unprecedented even for him.”

My take.

It’s a little hard to process. As a political reporter, the last four years have been a blur. I remember Sean Spicer’s now-infamous first presser when the argument over the size of Trump’s crowd erupted, how Spicer presented a PowerPoint to prove how many people showed up to support the president. While other reporters were gobsmacked by the obvious exaggerations, I felt a deep sense of dread: that the press’s obsession with being right, that the president’s obsession with being loved, and that the new shamelessness of bending the truth or telling outright lies would leave us in a never ending cycle of finger-pointing about trifles as meaningless as an inauguration crowd size.

Of course, innumerable events have happened since then — and the debates over lies and truth have taken on much more gravity. But the news never stopped. The late-night story drops, 5 a.m. bombshells, leaks, hearings, Twitter firings and unexpected pressers have sped up the days and blurred together the controversies and, at times, obscured many of the successes. I’m still writing up a Friday edition on the Trump legacy, but what I do know is that this transition to a new administration — regardless of how many Trump policies were net positives — is probably right on time.

The country, undoubtedly, feels like it’s at a breaking point. Whether you believe an election was just stolen or a president just incited an insurrection or communists are entering the Oval Office or that white nationalists are primed to start a Civil War — there’s a tightness, a cracking, a pressure rising that’s undeniable to anyone living in this country. For me, it’s hard not to feel as if this moment is letting a little bit of that pressure out, right as things started going off like sticks of dynamite.

I do think Joe Biden is a moderate, and I genuinely think he’s interested in healing the divisions in this country. Obviously, I hope to have some small part in bringing the right and left together. At the very least, I don’t expect Biden to frame Republicans or Fox News as evil enemies of the state, and that’ll be an improvement (and a necessary one) over the tone of the discourse we’ve had in recent months and years. For many, including me, Biden staying too much on script and parroting establishment talking points and white bread, canned responses will be aggravating. It’s part of what made Trump so likable to so many — he just sounded so different.

But frustration around that aside, I do feel a desperate need for calm, and I’m hopeful that we get some normalcy as a country in the coming months. The Biden script may be just what we need right now, if for nothing else to turn the temperature down. I know many of my readers and of course many Americans are distraught by this reality — while many are elated. That’s the nation we live in right now. At the very least, though, I think the events of the last couple of months could fairly be described as rock bottom — and typically that kind of bottoming out necessitates a change, a reset, a slate of fresh faces and movement in a new direction.

We’re getting that now, and I just hope as a country we can take a step toward each other. While I don’t feel overly optimistic, I do feel we have an opportunity, and am hopeful the next year can at least be better than the last. In the meantime, Tangle will move forward by bringing the same scrutiny to this administration as we did to the last, and the same holistic spectrum of views reflecting on it as we enter a new era.

Your questions, answered.

Q: What's the story on John Sullivan? The FAR right is reporting him as proof that Antifa was behind the riots in Washington. When I search Fox there are a lot of articles.  When I search CNN there are no articles, which feeds the right's narrative that CNN is biased. (I agree, I think CNN is very biased).

— Eric, Santa Cruz, California

Tangle: For those not in the know, John Sullivan is the man who filmed the shooting of Ashli Babbitt at the Capitol building riots. He was arrested and is being held in Utah. He also has a bizarre profile: he was raised in a conservative, military family, and is a Black man who has described himself as a racial justice activist and had been seen (and arrested) at Black Lives Matter protests throughout the summer. He almost qualified for the Olympics as a speed skater and has his own radical activist group called Insurgence USA.

That bizarre, convoluted description has helped ignite false claims that “Antifa” had infiltrated Trump supporters at the Capitol riots, and that Sullivan was just one of many left-wing activists who were actually present and posing as Trump supporters.

Reporting on Sullivan, though, and review of hours of footage from the day of the riots, paints a different picture. The Intercept did a deep dive on his work, as did Rolling Stone, and both show a very complicated portrait of someone who has no party loyalty, little political ideology and has been finding meaning in many of the political protests and groups popping up across the country. Sullivan has also, at times, called himself a journalist, and his footage from the Capitol riots was bought and published by many mainstream outlets before he was arrested.

From the footage, though, there’s a basic reality to be acknowledged here: Sullivan was not leading any protesters, nor was he posing as anyone or infiltrating anything. He was wearing a bulletproof vest and following the crowd as a quasi-war reporter, commentating what he was seeing and pushing live footage to his YouTube page. The idea that he had organized or participated (in a political sense) in the so-called insurrection is nonsense. And it’s certainly not proof of Antifa being at the riot.

Sullivan, frankly, is in some ways a poster child of the people who have participated in political violence over the last year. He’s not really a Democrat or liberal or Trumper — he’s more like someone whose ideology is summed up as “damn the system.” I said the same thing during the Kenosha, Wisconsin, riots: many of the people in the streets, if you read local reporting, were not Black Lives Matter organizers or activists. They were people who hated the police and/or hated the government or the left or the right — and had attached themselves to a movement they identified with. I doubt many of them were even voters; some said as much in interviews on the ground. A few writers called what we saw in Kenosha a class war, not a race war, and I think that may be a better description.

Similarly, I’d bet the folks at the Capitol were unlikely to describe themselves as Republicans. They were certainly not Antifa, Sullivan’s presence aside. They were, predominantly, Trump cultists — not even your average Trump voter, but people who are so immersed in the most fringe elements of Trumpism they were willing to die or be arrested in his name. They were there because they believe the government, deep state, Republicans and Democrats alike were trying to screw them over. Certainly, the footage of the riots suggests those who made it inside were the most radical of the Trump supporters.

So, my take on Sullivan’s presence is that he was there for YouTube views and to insert himself in what he expected to be a crazy day, not that he participated in planning the event or was part of a larger group of left-wing activists there posing as Trump supporters.

A story that matters.

Hours before leaving the Oval Office, President Trump rescinded an executive order he signed in 2017 that limited federal administration officials from lobbying the government or working for foreign countries after leaving their jobs. The measure, which Trump signed with bipartisan support, was representative of his effort to “drain the swamp” and was cheered by Trump supporters, Democrats and ethics officials alike. At the signing, Trump told the press that “most of the people standing behind me will not be able to go to work” when they leave the government. Ethics proponents said the order had loopholes but was an important step in closing the revolving door between government and lobbyists. No explanation was given for the last-minute reversal, and the order was released at 1:08 a.m. on Wednesday morning. (The Washington Post, subscription)


  • 39%. The percentage of Americans who said Trump definitely or probably made America great again, according to a new Morning Consult poll.
  • 57%. The percentage of Americans who said Trump definitely or probably did not make America great again, according to a new Morning Consult poll.
  • 21%. The percentage of Americans who said Trump was one of the best presidents ever, according to a new Morning Consult poll.
  • 46%. The percentage of Americans who said Trump was one of the worst presidents ever, according to a new Morning Consult poll.
  • 35%. The percentage of Americans who said Trump’s performance on coronavirus was excellent or good, according to a new Morning Consult poll.
  • 31%. The percentage of Americans who said Joe Biden should deifnitely or probably pledge he won’t run for reelection, according to a new Morning Consult poll.
  • 57-39. Joe Biden’s favorable/unfavorable rating as he enters office, according to a new Morning Consult poll.

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For the first time in over 80 years, salmon have begun spawning in the upper Columbia River in eastern Washington. Their presence is a remarkable turn of events in a conservation project that has been ongoing for years — all in an effort to bring the fish back to their native riverbeds and provide a needed resource for tribes who have lost access to the fish after the building of several dams. “I was shocked at first, then I was just overcome with complete joy,” Crystal Conant, a Colville Tribal member from the Arrow Lakes and SanPoil bands, said. “I don't know that I have the right words to even explain the happiness and the healing.”

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