Jul 29, 2020

Bill Barr testifies in front of Congress.

Bill Barr testifies in front of Congress.

Plus, a question about election security.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: a politics newsletter that tells you best arguments from both sides. Tangle is independent, ad-free and subscriber-supported. If someone sent you this email, they’re asking you to subscribe. You can read it for free and you can reach me anytime by replying to this email.

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Today’s read: 12 minutes.

Important breaking news, Bill Barr’s hearing before Congress, a question about election “hacking” and a story about Scranton, PA, that you should read.

Attorney General William Barr (right) and President Donald Trump (left) shake hands in the White House. Photo: The United States Department of Justice


Texas Republican Louie Gohmert has tested positive for coronavirus. Gohmert has not been wearing a mask on Capitol Hill and was scheduled to go to Texas with Donald Trump this morning — hence his test. Gohmert told staffers in person about his positive test, which is drawing frustration about the Texas Republican from across the political world. “Reps. Mario Diaz Balart (R-FL), Neal Dunn (R-FL), Morgan Griffith (R-VA), Mike Kelly (R-PA), Ben McAdams (D-UT) and Tom Rice (R-SC) have tested positive for the virus, along with Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY),” according to Politico. Click.

Reader feedback.

Yesterday, several readers wrote in challenging me on my contention that we need more research before legalizing marijuana because of recent studies tying habitual pot use to things like depression and psychosis. Most of the emails contained a rather obvious argument that I regret not addressing: tobacco, alcohol and other substances are all legal despite the widespread understanding that they have negative health impacts.

To be clear: I’m not suggesting cannabis should never be legal, or that health concerns alone should stop it from being legal. There are certainly upsides to government-approved pot sales: tax revenue, fewer prisoners via de-criminalization and cannabis’s role as a legal and safer alternative to some current medical treatments.

My point is really that recent research has shown today’s pot is far more potent than we may have imagined twenty or even ten years ago. And, if we’re going to legalize cannabis, we need to regulate it: decide who can buy it, in what quantities, how often, where, and what to do when someone is — say — “driving under the influence of cannabis.” To regulate it with any kind of competency, we need more research. To do more research, we need more time. My argument is just that we know less about it than we thought and we shouldn’t move toward total legalization until we know more.

If you’re interested in this topic, this Buffalo News op-ed does a good job summing up my position.

Quick hits.

  1. Joe Biden told reporters he will announce his running mate next week. Yesterday, Tangle covered the most likely options for Joe Biden’s running mate‚ and what the right and left thought about them. Then photographers caught a picture of Biden’s notes yesterday, which included several points on Sen. Kamala Harris — one of the likely VP choices. Biden had committed to naming his running mate the first week of August, then backed off that commitment, then re-committed to it again yesterday. Shortly after the newsletter went out, Biden told reporters that he would be revealing his running mate sometime next week. "I promise, I’ll let you know when I do," Biden joked.
  2. President Trump said he never asked Vladimir Putin about the alleged Russian bounties that were paid to the Taliban to kill U.S. soldiers. A few weeks ago, news reports broke that Russia had been paying the Taliban for U.S. soldier kills. Outrage ensued over the fact the U.S. had not retaliated against Russia. The president denied ever seeing intelligence reports that confirmed the bounties. In an interview with Axios’s Jonathan Swan yesterday, he was pressed on the issue, and ultimately said he’d never asked Putin about the alleged bounties.
  3. The “umbrella man” who was filmed smashing the windows of an AutoZone in Minneapolis, Minnesota, during George Floyd protests was identified yesterday. Though he wasn’t named, Minneapolis police said in a court filing for a search warrant that he was a white supremacist trying to incite violence at the rallies. Video of the man went viral on Twitter, and Tangle covered conspiracy theories about the man, including allegations he was actually a cop. “This was the first fire that set off a string of fires and looting throughout the precinct and the rest of the city,” Minneapolis Sgt. Erika Christensen said.
  4. The Trump administration will allow current Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients to renew their protections for one year as the administration continues to review the program. It will not, however, allow new applications, a decision likely to impact around 66,000 undocumented immigrants brought here as children. The new order comes just weeks after the White House lost a Supreme Court battle to eliminate the program altogether.
  5. Today, the CEOs of the four largest tech companies — Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Apple’s Tim Cook and Google’s Sundar Pichai — will answer questions before Congress about whether their companies are too powerful and violating antitrust laws. Congress has been investigating the companies for a year, reviewing over 1.3 million documents and conducting hundreds of hours of interviews.

What D.C. is talking about.

Attorney General William Barr. Yesterday, Barr testified in front of Congress in an oversight hearing about the federal law enforcement response across the U.S., recent criminal cases involving political allies of President Trump and questions about police brutality and systemic racism in law enforcement. As attorney general, Barr is the highest-ranking law enforcement officer in the United States — the top lawyer for the federal government.

Barr was appointed by President Trump and confirmed by the Republican-controlled Senate in a hotly contested hearing. For 14 months, the House Judiciary Committee, which is controlled by Democrats, has been trying to get Barr to testify. That’s because many House Democrats view him as someone who has injected politics into the Justice Department, working at Trump’s behest instead of acting independently, a grave offense in the political world but an accusation that is certainly not unique.

As attorney general, Barr has extraordinary power. In recent months, he’s helped coordinate the deployment of federal law enforcement agents into cities like Portland, Oregon. He’s been involved in the sentencing recommendations of Roger Stone, Trump’s political ally who the president recently pardoned after he was convicted of lying to Congress, witness tampering and obstructing an investigation. He also pushed the Justice Department to drop charges against Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser who was convicted of lying to the FBI.

Like most House Judiciary Committee hearings recently, yesterday’s was rife with grandstanding, monologues, and lots of talking over each other. But there were significant moments throughout.

What the left is saying.

It’s clear that Bill Barr is a partisan actor, and it’s also clear he’s detached from reality. Barr claimed repeatedly that the president gives him “complete freedom” to do his job, though the entire country can see that’s not true by simply looking at Trump’s Twitter feed. He repeatedly chimes in on federal cases involving his friends, calls on Barr to take certain actions, and in many cases Barr has done exactly as Trump requested. This overt relationship is unlike anything we’ve seen between an Attorney General and the president.

“By now, Barr has established himself as a loyal defender of Trump, willing to make decisions that at the very least give the appearance that he is doing Trump’s personal bidding,” Amber Phillips said in The Washington Post. “But Tuesday, he did little to refute the criticism that Trump’s personal desires influence him.”

During his testimony, Barr made several claims that the left couldn’t believe. He said there was no systemic racism in policing and that he wasn’t familiar with the case of Elijah McClain — one of the best known stories told by the Black Lives Matter movement (McClain died in police custody after being injected with ketamine, despite having no weapons and committing no crime). Barr also claimed not to be aware of armed, right-wing protesters who had entered the Michigan state capitol building with confederate flags and threatened to behead the governor, an event that was national news for days.

He also opened his remarks by acknowledging the impact of the late Democrat John Lewis, who he called an “indomitable champion of civil rights.” Several Black Democrats responded by essentially telling Barr not to utter Lewis’s name, a man whose voting rights legacy is being dismantled by Barr’s Justice Department evennow.

“Lewis put his life on the line for voting rights and continued to fight for access to the ballot until the day he died,” Ryan Reilly and Amanda Terkel wrote in the Huffington Post. “Barr, on the other hand, has supported Trump’s crusade to make it harder for people to vote during the pandemic and advocated against mail-in ballots (even though he, like other top Trump administration officials, has voted by mail in the past).”

Barr continued to defend the deployment of federal law enforcement into Portland, too, saying “violent rioters and anarchists have hijacked legitimate protests.”  He also noted that those rioters were attacking a federal court house, which is federal property, which means it’s his job to protect it.

“The question is not whether individual acts of violence against federal property and/or agents are illegal and should be punished; they are and they should,” Greg Sargent wrote in The Washington Post. “Rather, the question is whether law enforcement officers from the Department of Homeland Security have overstepped their boundaries by cracking down on protesters on terrain removed from federal property, and by doing so in defiance of local officials’ demands that they refrain… that conduct is particularly galling given Trump’s directive that states are largely on their own against the coronavirus.”

What the right is saying.

“He came, he saw, he ate their lunch,” Michael Goodwin wrote in The New York Post. “Bill Barr, denied a meal break, feasted instead on a gaggle of Democratic amateurs.” That about sums up the right’s opinion: Barr embarrassed Democrats, dismantled their shoddy and fact-free arguments, and left the hearing having taken the high ground against a group of rabid grandstanders.

On the deployment of agents to Portland, Barr was direct and clear — backed by video evidence of violent rioting that House Republicans happily played on a big screen in the hearing room.

“The injuries to federal officers trying to protect federal property include severe burns, beatings, and three officers who may be permanently blinded after being hit with lasers,” two former Justice Department lawyers wrote for Fox News. “As Barr very pointedly said, ‘peaceful protesters do not throw explosives into federal courthouses, tear down plywood with crowbars, or launch fecal matter at federal officers.’”

Andrew McCarthy said in National Review that yesterday should have been an important hearing with an important witness — one whom a serious committee would have let speak so they could challenge him.

“But of course, it wasn’t anything like an actual hearing, and they didn’t want him to testify — as in actually answer questions,” McCarthy said. “The session was a coveted election-year opportunity for Democrats to berate the attorney general of the United States in five-minute installments, accusing Barr of corruption, perjury, violating his oath, betraying the Constitution — at one point, even of killing thousands of COVID-19 victims (apparently, by being attorney general during a pandemic).”

Goodwin said he was glad to see someone who wasn’t afraid to get “canceled,” and glad that Barr was willing to speak the truth.

“The war against law enforcement, he said, is making police ‘more risk-averse,’ and that is part of the reason crime is soaring across America — leading to the deaths of the very people the Black Lives Matter movement says it wants to help,” Goodwin wrote. “If only Barr had been Trump’s first attorney general, the last four years would have been dramatically different.”

My take.

I watched most of yesterday’s hearing live and read the parts I missed afterward. Unfortunately, I think the National Review’s Andrew McCarthy (mostly) nailed it. This was not a hearing. It was not witness testimony. It was an opportunity for Democrats and Republicans alike to ask questions, interrupt, and deliver their own five-minute monologues without saying much of anything worth repeating here.

The very few worthwhile moments from the hearing came when Black members of the Democratic caucus pressed Barr about racial disparities in American policing. They exposed an attorney general who was unfamiliar with the most widely reported stories that are energizing so many on the left, and unwilling to concede that mountains of research show us that people of color are treated far worse when they interact with the justice system than whites. This was an important thing to cast a light on in this historic moment — one that demands an attorney general who understands this reality — but the illumination was brief.

Unfortunately, most Democrats didn’t let Barr speak. Which is a shame. The few times he was allowed to talk, even when Republicans tried to tee him up with softball questions, it was valuable information. Barr openly castigated Trump’s decision to pardon Roger Stone, a moment that in any other presidency would dominate the news for weeks: Trump’s own attorney general saying he did not agree with Trump’s decision to pardon an ally who lied to protect Trump. Think about it!

Matt Gaetz, a Republican from Florida, lobbed Barr a softball in an attempt to frighten Americans by asking him to define Antifa. But Barr struggled to do it. He basically called them a loosely organized group of people who hold events and are also absorbed in their own infighting. Terrifying stuff. The moment showed how absurd the narrative around Antifa being a “terrorist organization” really is, even if the group has successfully wreaked havoc in places like Oregon.

In another telling moment, Barr seemed to waver when Democrats let him answer a question about whether a president should accept foreign help to win an election, an exchange that will almost certainly be used in campaign ads against Trump. “It depends what kind of assistance,” Barr said, before meeting the eyes of a shocked Democratic lawmaker. Barr conceded it was “not appropriate” after being asked a second time.

And then Barr stumbled when trying to explain why an Army National Guard officer testified under oath that peaceful protesters were removed with “excessive force” from Lafayette Square so Trump could walk to a photoshoot — a clearing out that Barr apparently oversaw.

But mostly, Democrats didn’t let Barr speak. And the few times they did, Barr ran circles around them explaining how absurd it was that they continue to defend the rioters in Portland. In one particularly stunning moment, Barr asked any Democrat in the room to speak up against mob violence and say the attacks on the federal court in Portland have to stop. To my dismay, not one Democrat said a word.

These moments were damning for the left, and they’ll be played on repeat in houses across America for the next three months. Nobody expected Republicans to do anything other than praise Barr and heap compliments on the president. That’s what both sides do in our broken Congress when they have a political ally testifying in front of them.

But in a different world, where Democrats were competent at their oversight jobs and took them seriously (not politically), there would have been questions about why federal law enforcement agents were spread out across Portland and not just around the federal courthouse, why they were there when local leaders didn’t want them, and why they were ramping up in other cities where the civil unrest has largely stopped. They would have challenged the absurd Russian meddling denialism, reasserted the case against Michael Flynn and highlighted the blatant self-preservation of Trump pardoning allies who cover up his shady political dealings.

Instead, as Russell Berman put it in The Atlantic, “After five hours of testimony, it was hard to say whether lawmakers had much new insight into the workings of the Justice Department or the actions of its leadership—ostensibly the purpose of an oversight hearing.” It was a major whiff for Democrats — and a major lost opportunity for Americans.

Your blindspot.

As part of a partnership with Ground News, an app and website that uses data to rate the political lean of stories and news outlets, I’ll be featuring parts of Ground News’s “Blindspot Report” in Tangle. The Blindspot Report tells you what stories folks on the left and right miss each week because of their biased news diets.

If you’re on the right, you probably missed the story about Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) saying slavery was “the necessary evil upon which the union was built.”

If you’re on the left, you probably missed the story about a Black Trump supporter who was shot to death in Milwaukee.

Want to check out Ground News’s bias ratings, blindspot reports or other news sources? Click here.

Your questions, answered.

Asking a question is easy. All you have to do to reach me is reply to this email and write in. I answer a reader question in almost every newsletter. Give it a try!

Q: Although election security has been getting some attention lately, one aspect of it that is rarely discussed is the possibility of voting machines being hacked. It seems to me that when there is a discrepancy it often favors Republicans and that this started happening consistently after the adoption of electronic voting machines. Given that many of the voting machines are made by companies that support Republicans, and who do not make their software public, I have long been concerned that hacking could be going on. I'm not trying to push a conspiracy theory, but I would greatly appreciate a convincing explanation for why I don't need to be worried about this. If there is one?

— Leslie, Austin, Texas

Tangle: Unfortunately, I’m not sure I can give you a convincing enough explanation to ease your worries. Election security is a very real issue and a very real threat to our democracy. The idea that voting machines can’t be hacked, that votes can’t be altered or that our elections are totally secure is — in a word — nonsense.

What I can tell you is the partisan framing of this question is probably not appropriate. There’s no discrepancy toward Republicans when voting machines have been hacked because we don’t have any hard evidence of voting machines being hacked (at least not in ways that changed elections) to analyze. I also could not find any reliable information about voting machines being made predominantly by Republicans.

In fact, about half the voting machines in the entire country are manufactured and operated by one company: ES&S. That company is owned by the McCarthy Group, whose top-level executives have donated across the political spectrum. Some of ES&S’s own lobbyists have donated to Republican governors, but that’s been pretty standard lobbying practice to secure contracts in states for their machines.

More worrisome is the market on voting machines, which is fundamentally broken. It’s dominated by a few companies and has very little oversight. When those machines, like ES&S’s, have failed, the failures have gone both ways.

As for actual hacking, basically everyone in law enforcement and politics from former FBI Director James Comey to members of the Senate tells us it’s not possible because the machines “aren’t connected to the internet.” This may prevent some remote hacking, but the claim would be laughable if it weren’t so absurd and frightening. My opinion, personally, is that this is a result of the government’s need to reassure the populace they have everything under control. I do not think they have everything under control.

One of the most prominent people in this space is a Finnish data security expert named Harri Hursti. Hursti has repeatedly demonstrated how easy it would be for a hacker to gain entry to voting machines in the U.S. and corrupt the results of an election — either by creating lost votes or by causing such an absolute mess that it’s impossible for pollsters to count the votes in the first place. Hursti was recently featured in an HBO documentary called Kill Chain: The Cyber War on America’s Elections, which details how vulnerable our election security is. He was also written about in a recent Wall Street Journal article.

Part of Hursti’s earliest work in America was discovering that the machines used in Florida’s hotly contested 2000 presidential election had memory cards he could remove and program to change votes. “These machines are so unsecure and so easy to hack,” Hursti said at the time. The company who made the machines, Diebold, said his findings were a “sham.” They were not. Hursti was a millionaire who had retired after selling two companies and came out of retirement after election security officials in America begged him to help them. For the last two decades, he’s been proving his initial findings were real.

In 2017, Hursti launched a now-famous hacking conference in Las Vegas. There, he filled the conference with election machines that were being used across the United States today. Then he invited some of the world’s best programmers in and asked them to breach the machines. The hackers were able to “swap out software, uncover network plug-ins that shouldn’t have been left working, and uncover other ways for unauthorized actors to manipulate the vote,” all in the first day of the event. It was not hard.

Some of the machines those hackers cracked open like pistachios were created, owned and operated by ES&S. A spokesperson responded to news reports about the hackathon by saying the hackers were breaking into old models of their machines, and that new models were more advanced and “strong enough to make it extraordinarily difficult to hack in a real-world environment and, therefore, safe and secure to use in an election.”

They didn’t clarify the difference between “real-world” and the hackers, who were not operating in an alternative reality. Nor did they clarify how “extraordinarily difficult” translated to “not possible,” which is what the answer should be when a company building voting machines in America is asked if those machines can be manipulated.

In short: it’s a serious issue, and Congress is not addressing it. Democrats have been pushing for election security measures but Republicans have resisted, citing the many unrelated Democratic wishes that are often stuffed into election security bills. Hursti says the only way to ensure a safe election in America right now is to vote by hand-marked paper ballots. I tend to agree.

If it’s any consolation, though, this kind of hacking wouldn’t happen without us knowing. If and when machines were breached or manipulated, we’d likely find out — and the most plausible scenario would involve an inability to extract the votes from certain machines. I’m not sure if that will help you sleep any better, but hopefully it means we’d find out if there was ever a corrupted election.

A story that matters.

Politico’s Tim Alberta has what might be one of the most important stories published in recent memory about the 2020 election. In it, Alberta addresses the idea that Trump will lose in 2020 because he’s losing suburban voters — a commonly accepted notion in D.C. these days. Instead, Alberta makes the case that Trump still has more white working-class voters he can win over. Yes, Trump won largely on the backs of the white working class in 2016. But Alberta’s contention is that turnout amongst that group wasn’t as high as people think, Democrats actually haven’t “bottomed out” with the white working-class voter yet, either. So Alberta went to Scranton, PA, to investigate. “Although I did pass a few million roadside diners in my 20 hours of driving to report this dispatch, and even had lovely meals at two of them, this is not one of those diner stories,” Alberta writes.  Click.


  • 66%. The percentage of parents with at least one child under the age of 18 who say that parenting is harder today than it was 20 years ago.
  • 71%. The percentage of parents with children under the age of 11 who say they are concerned that their child might ever spend too much time in front of screens.
  • 80%. The percentage of parents with children under the age of 11 who say their kid watches videos on YouTube.
  • 34%. The percentage of Americans who identify as conservative.
  • 40%. The percentage of Americans who identified as conservative in February.
  • 73%. The percentage of Republicans who identify as conservative.
  • 53%. The percentage of Democrats who identify as liberal.
  • 65%. The percentage of American adults who support the recent protests that have taken place around the country following the death of George Floyd.

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Have a nice day.

Tahlequah, the orca whale who carried her dead calf for 17 days, is pregnant again. I’m not usually a sucker for the animal puff pieces, but when this initial story broke it really did move something inside of me. In case you missed it, Tahlequah is the whale who gained global notoriety when scientists observed her carrying around her dead calf for 17 days across more than 1,000 miles of ocean. Tahlequah didn’t just become famous for the humanness of her mourning, but also because whales in the region she inhabits have struggled to reproduce. That made the death of her calf all the more troubling. Now, she’s pregnant again, and marine biologists across the planet are celebrating. Click.

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