What should the Biden administration do now?
I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”
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- House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) unveiled a plan to raise the debt ceiling by $1.5 trillion and introduced spending cuts on Covid funds, IRS funding, and student loan forgiveness. (The proposal)
- The Supreme Court temporarily extended access to the abortion pill drug Mifepristone until Friday night. (The extension)
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- SpaceX's uncrewed Starship exploded shortly after takeoff this morning, scattering debris over the Gulf of Mexico. (The accident)
Evan Gershkovich. On Tuesday, a Russian court upheld the detention of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who was arrested while reporting last month under accusations of of espionage. Both the U.S. and The Wall Street Journal strongly deny the allegations, and have designated Gershkovich as wrongfully detained.
Gershkovich, a 31-year-old American citizen, is being held in prison pending trial in Lefortovo. Many political prisoners have been kept in the same prison. His hearing was held behind closed doors, though he did appear in the glass encased defendant’s box that has become common in Russian courtrooms (image above). It was the first time he has been seen in public since March 30.
It is rare for defendants to win appeals or be acquitted in cases in Russia, especially on charges of espionage, which are often politically motivated. Lynne Tracy, the U.S. Ambassador to Russia, attended the trial and called for his immediate release. Tracy also called for the release of Paul Whelan, another American being held by Russia, who has also been classified by the U.S. government as wrongfully detained.
Gershkovich is accredited to work as a journalist in Russia and was on assignment for The Wall Street Journal. He has lived there for the last six years. Russia's Federal Security Service, the successor of the KGB, said he was “acting on the instructions of the American side, collected information constituting a state secret about the activities of one of the enterprises of the Russian military-industrial complex.” They have yet to present any evidence to support the allegation.
Gershkovich's parents, who emigrated from the Soviet Union decades ago, said they received a handwritten letter from their son on Friday in which he expressed optimism about the situation and assured them he wasn't losing hope.
Gershkovich could be sentenced for up to 20 years in prison, and espionage trials in Russia typically end with a guilty verdict. WNBA star Brittney Griner was recently released from a Russian prison after serving more than nine months in jail, but was sentenced to nine years in prison for possession of marijuana vape cartridges. Griner was sent back to the U.S. in exchange for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. More recently, Russian opposition leader Vladimir Kara-Murza, a former journalist, was sentenced to 25 years in prison for his public opposition to the war in Ukraine.
Today, we're going to take a look at some reactions from the right and left, then my take.
Pundits from across the political spectrum have said Gershkovich is being wrongfully detained and criticized Russian President Vladimir Putin for his arrest. Many are calling for his immediate release, and no Western writers that we found or contacted believe the charges against Gershkovich are legitimate.
What the right is saying.
- Many on the right call for Gershkovich to be freed, and emphasize the fact he is not a spy.
- Some call out the Biden administration's weakness, and argue a new strategy is needed for when Americans are unjustly imprisoned.
- Others say this is the latest evidence that Putin is re-Sovietizing Russia.
In The Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan said "Evan Gershkovich is not a spy."
"The best journalists are and always have been professionals who are simply trying to locate the truth, and tell it," Noonan said. "They want to tell the people what they have a right to know about the world they live in." Many, like war correspondents, put themselves in danger "because the people of countries at war deserve to know... what is happening on the ground." Gershkovich "did his job in danger, as all reporters in Moscow do, operating under harsh press laws since the Ukraine war."
He's the first American reporter to be charged with espionage since the Cold War, and "there is every reason to be very worried about him." Of course, "everyone knows he isn’t a spy. He is a journalist who is now a state hostage, held, it is generally assumed, for some future trade down the road," she said. Noonan also called on any "commentators" or "political figures" who have said something that Putin may have agreed with to use their potential influence to call out "what is in effect Evan Gershkovich’s abduction, and his cruel and cynical imprisonment."
In The New York Post, Richard Goldberg criticized Biden's "weakness" on Russia's hostage taking, which "puts Americans abroad at risk."
"Putin’s brazen act should compel President Joe Biden to overhaul how the government responds to states that take Americans hostage — putting an end to ransom negotiations and authorizing active measures against the governments and individuals involved," Goldberg wrote. It "isn't new" for Putin to leverage detained Americans to get Russians out of prison. But seizing a U.S. journalist "represents a significant escalation in the hostage-taking arena."
Putin's "gambit" in arresting Brittney Griner to get Viktor Bout out of prison "paid off." He is "watching closely" as Iran tries to negotiate the release of hostages for the lifting of financial sanctions, and "perhaps Putin sees his newest American hostage as a prize worth more than just another prisoner." If Americans simply wait for Russia's faux legal process to play out and then swap a Russian spy for Gershkovich's freedom, that will "only invite more high-profile American hostage taking."
In National Review, Jay Nordlinger wrote about the re-Sovietization of Russia.
"According to Memorial, there are more political prisoners in Russia today than there were in the late Soviet period. Memorial was the leading civil-society organization in Russia. It has been banned, along with civil society more broadly," Nordlinger wrote. "Some political prisoners are well-known, most are not." Nordlinger listed several political prisoners arrested in the last few years, before noting that Gershkovich was "a lover of Russia."
There is usually a deal, and "there probably will be for the new hostage, Evan Gershkovich. For many years now, some of us have been accused of having 'Cold War nostalgia.' The truth is, we are capable of seeing what is right in front of our noses. We are realists," Nordlinger said. "For many years, people have said to us, 'Today’s Russia is not the Soviet Union, you know!' The best reply to that is: 'Does Putin?'"
What the left is saying.
- Many on the left also emphasize Gershkovich's innocence, and criticize Putin's authoritarianism.
- Some emphasize the importance of press freedom worldwide, and the threats to journalism from Putin and, increasingly, conservatives in America.
- Others say covering Russia is more dangerous now than it has been in decades.
In The Washington Post, Jason Rezaian, who was imprisoned for 544 days in Iran, said Gershkovich is standing tall.
When Gershkovich appeared in the Moscow courtroom, "everyone played their part. Everyone, that is, except Gershkovich." Rather than "cowering" from the glare or looking confused or scared, he "stood there with his head held high. He had made the correct assessment early on in his ordeal that he has nothing to hide and nothing to be ashamed of. I remember a similar sense coming over me during my own trial in Iran."
"Make no mistake," Rezaian said, "one is certainly beset by a sense of fear when the full weight of an authoritarian apparatus is bearing down upon you." But there is also "defiance" and "knowledge that you are being deeply wronged." Gershkovich is "now a member of a select community of unfortunate souls who are unjustly subjected to abuse by those wielding unchecked power," and his "show trial" is about scaring foreign journalists and silencing critics at home.
The Philadelphia Inquirer editorial board called it "another salvo in the war against democracy."
The arrest "is part of a broader attack on the free press in Russia and beyond," the board said. "With trust in the media near record lows, Gershkovich’s jailing may not attract as much attention as the arrest of women’s professional basketball star Brittney Griner," but "it should be a cause for alarm and further unify the United States against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unjust war on its neighbor." Yet, being "anti-media" is "part of the GOP's identity." Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has "called for the rolling back of press freedoms" while attacks on free speech are escalating.
This is "all part of a disturbing decline toward authoritarianism" here at home, including "Trump's attacks on the press and his continued support for Putin." His presidency "emboldened dictators" which led to "more attacks on the free press around the world." Since 1992, "more than 80 journalists and media workers have been killed in Russia alone," and Gershkovich's arrest "underscores Putin’s disregard for international laws and norms as he further antagonizes the West."
In The New York Times, Michael M. Grynbaum said the arrest made covering Russia "even more dangerous."
At the beginning of the war, an "exodus" of news outlets began. "The risk to journalists, in a country where describing a war as a 'war' was suddenly a crime, was too great," Grynbaum said. But some outlets, like the BBC, "quickly resumed their work." Others, like Bloomberg, "never returned." Yet even under these circumstances, "Western correspondents were hopeful that their work could continue. That hope was shattered last week by the arrest of Evan Gershkovich."
No matter the outcome of his case, the arrest "sends an indisputable signal that foreign reporters were newly vulnerable." Gershkovich had been accredited by the Russian Foreign Ministry, "a process that had continued even after the invasion of Ukraine and was thought to grant a degree of protection for Western journalists. The move against him scrambled that assumption." Now, the Journal's Moscow chief has left, and The Times “has moved most of its bureau out of the country.”
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- Biden should do whatever he can to get him home.
- Still, it's clear the current process is not a deterrent.
- It's another reminder of the difference between us and Russia.
In a war where so many people have been killed, maimed, tortured, exiled, or turned into refugees, the arrest of a single reporter may not seem like a big deal. But this is a truly dark turn.
For decades, foreign correspondents in Russia have operated under two simultaneous assumptions. They assumed they were being monitored — phones tapped, apartments watched, movements tracked — but also knew they could report relatively freely, at least compared to the Soviet era. Unlike Russian writers, who were regularly jailed for criticizing the government, foreign correspondents enjoyed more leeway. Russia wanted to be legitimized, and allowing foreign press freedom of movement aided in that goal.
Arresting Gershkovich changes the dynamics. It further isolates a government who is already being backed so far into a corner it's hard to know what they'll do next. Whether Putin is looking for sanctions relief, another prisoner swap, or simply wants to scare other reporters out of the country is hard to know. Perhaps it's none of those things. Perhaps it's all of them.
Gershkovich loved Russia. The moving account from his colleagues on his reporting career there paints a picture of everything a reporter is supposed to be. His fate, trapped inside an authoritarian leader's prison system, is one of my greatest fears. Gershkovich is not just being detained, but unjustly detained. That Gershkovich is exactly my age, 31, is a chilling reminder of how easily I could be in his shoes.
Before his arrest, Gershkovich was apparently reporting on the Wagner Group, a private militia key to Russia's fighting in Ukraine. He was in a manufacturing city interviewing employees of a tank factory. Russia calls this information gathering that is "threatening the security of the country." I call it reporting an important story.
When I write about Putin, the Russian government, and the war in Ukraine, I often write that I think Russia is operating on a different moral plane than we or Ukraine are. The obvious point is that Putin invaded a sovereign nation he wants to claim as his own. I get frustrated by critics excusing this due to a number of geopolitical reasons, but I understand their points. Imprisoning innocent people guilty of nothing more than criticizing or reporting honestly on him, though, are the morally abominable and indefensible actions that demand widespread condemnation.
Gershkovich isn't alone. Though the circumstances of former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan’s arrest are far more bizarre, he has also been rotting in a Russian jail cell for more than five years. Teacher Marc Fogel was jailed in 2021 for marijuana possession, as was Brittney Griner in 2022. They, like Gershkovich, need a government that will go to the ends of the earth to free them, and that will think of better ways to navigate these situations.
When Biden traded Griner for Bout, I said it was "the right bad deal." Freeing Griner feels morally correct, but I said that a straight up swap for Bout was an "abject failure" in diplomacy, and it "reinforced the idea that holding Americans hostage is a good way to get our attention and force our cooperation."
What's happening in Russia these days is hard to fully wrap your head around. Jay Nordlinger did his best to capture it, telling stories from Russia like the one of a 13-year-old girl who recently drew an anti-war picture in school. Her father was arrested, and when it was discovered he had criticized the war in Ukraine on social media, he was sentenced to prison. His daughter was sent to an orphanage. He fled the country, then was found, and is now behind bars in Russia.
This is how Russia operates. Putin has made this perfectly clear, promising a "dictatorship of the law."
Gershkovich is in serious danger, and we should all hope and pray for his well-being. He deserves to be home. If there were ever a good time for the American pundits who have downplayed Putin's authoritarian streak to step up and speak out, this is it. Putin is showing us his true colors every day. He will do whatever it takes to destroy his enemies — kill, torture, imprison, silence — and he will not operate under the same rules we do.
Evan Gershkovich is a brave reporter, one who knew the risks of doing this work but surely never thought this is where he'd land. Once again, we are left in the difficult position of needing to do whatever it takes to get him home. And once we do, we'll have to go back to the drawing board on how to better deter these arrests in the future — because whatever we are doing now is not working.
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Your questions, answered.
Q: I read a news article that NPR has pulled its accounts off of Twitter, after their initial and now redesignated status as a “government-funded” news source. Can you comment on the designations used, and if there is any validity to them? I’m a long-time supporter of my local public radio station, but that doesn’t make me an expert in knowing about news source funding entirely.
— Domenica from Napa Valley, California
Tangle: First, it's true that NPR receives some money from the government. But it has a $300 million budget — less than 1% of which comes from the federally funded Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The vast majority of its funding comes from listeners and donors. Elon Musk first decided to label NPR as "state-affiliated," which is a ridiculous moniker for a company who gets less than 1% of its cash from a federally funded program for news. Then, seemingly making it up as he went along, he backed into "government funded" during an interview with a BBC journalist. But that, too, is a misleading label.
The point, obviously, is to paint NPR as a non-independent entity, which is really the heart of the problem. I don't think anyone would reasonably describe, say, Tesla as a "government program" — yet it received $1.3 billion (with a "b") in incentives from Nevada alone to help build a massive battery factory there. Of course, we can split hairs about subsidies and funds and the different ways these programs work, but Musk's empire of companies gets roughly $4.9 billion in government subsidies. I doubt he considers any of his very private companies as "state-affiliated."
On the other hand, NPR wants it both ways. It says both that it gets a tiny fraction of revenue from the government and that its federal funding is "essential" to its service to the American public. There is a legitimate debate about whether the government should be giving any money to NPR, but I think that is a separate discussion. The real problem is that this label implies it operates in concert with the government. That's simply not true.
NPR is biased to the left these days, but that is very different from being a state entity. We have a divided federal government, which only a few years ago Republicans controlled every arm of. Was NPR, which was incessantly critical of that Republican trifecta, a “state-affiliated” media organization then? Of course not. Yes, it gets some public funds. But it’s hyperbolic and misleading to call it "government funded" or "state-affiliated" on Twitter. Ultimately, I think this is much more about NPR's editorial lean than anything to do with how it makes its money.
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Under the radar.
Prior to a cyber symposium in 2021, MyPillow founder Mike Lindell made an offer: If anyone could disprove his data showing China had interfered in the 2020 election, he would pay them $5 million. The challenge, dubbed "Prove Mike Wrong," drew national attention, including from one Robert Zeidman, a computer forensics expert and 63-year-old Trump supporter. Zeidman examined the data and proved not only that it failed to show voter fraud — but that it wasn't even from the 2020 election. On Wednesday, a private arbitration panel ruled that Zeidman had won the challenge, and directed Lindell's firm to pay him the $5 million. The Washington Post has the story.
- 82. The number of journalists killed in Russia between 1992 and 2023.
- 17. The number of journalists killed in the U.S. between 1992 and 2023.
- 19. The known number of journalists who are in Russian prisons right now.
- 25. The number of years Vladimir Kara-Murza was sentenced to prison for denouncing the war in Ukraine.
- 500,000 to 1 million. The estimated number of Russian citizens who have fled the country since the war began.
- Unknown. The number of American expats still living in Russia, though the State Department estimates it is in the thousands.
- One year ago today, we were covering the end of federal mask mandates.
- The most clicked link in yesterday's newsletter was The New York Post op-ed on gender-affirming care.
- Give us the trial: 53.39% of Tangle readers said Fox News was guilty of defamation, and they wish it had gone to trial. 33.2% said they were guilty but they were glad it didn't go to trial, and just 3.2% said they thought Fox News was innocent of defamation.
- Nothing to do with politics: The video of SpaceX's StarShip exploding.
- Take the poll. How do you view Gershkovich’s arrest? Let us know.
Have a nice day.
A physics teacher in Kenya is turning gas-powered bikes into electric ones — using old laptop batteries. Paul Waweru is a perfect example of Kenyan ingenuity, Good News Network reported. He's turning second-hand electronics destined to become waste into something useful, by cannibalizing old laptop computers as battery cells that can hold a decent charge. Once he has enough of them, he combines them into packs, and replaces the combustion engines on scooters and bikes. Waweru founded a company called Ecomobilus to sell the e-bikes. Good News Network has the story.
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