Plus, would Putin have invaded with Trump in office?
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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- Special counsel Robert Hur is unlikely to file charges related to the investigation into President Biden's handling of classified documents as vice president and senator, though the report is expected to be sharply critical of Biden and his staff (The decision). Separately, special counsel David Weiss has subpoenaed Biden's brother James as part of a grand jury investigation into Hunter Biden's finances.(The investigation)
- Israel and Hamas are nearing a deal for the release of around 50 hostages in exchange for the release of roughly the same number of Palestinian women and children in Israeli prisons (The negotiations). Separately, Yemen's Houthi rebels have seized an Israeli-linked cargo ship and taken 25 crew members hostage. (The ship)
- Microsoft hired Sam Altman, the former CEO of OpenAI who was forced out this weekend. Altman's shock departure from the company behind ChatGPT has been shrouded in mystery. (The latest)
- Rosalynn Carter, the former U.S. First Lady, died at the age of 96 due to complications from dementia. Her husband, former President Jimmy Carter, is 99 years old and in hospice care. (The death)
- House Republicans are publicly releasing around 95% of the 44,000 hours of security footage from January 6, 2021, over Democratic objections that doing so would create a security issue. (The footage)
The government funding bill. On Thursday, President Biden signed a stopgap funding bill to keep the federal government open until early 2024. The bill was signed a day before a potential government shutdown and did not include wartime funding for Ukraine or Israel.
The bill contains an unusual "laddered" structure that splits the 12 appropriations bills into two groups. That sets up two different deadlines in 2024, January 19 and February 2, which could each trigger government shutdowns if not met. However, it also buys time for the House and Senate to agree on longer-term spending packages. The January 19 deadline will be for agencies covered by the agriculture, energy and water, military construction and veterans affairs, and transportation and housing appropriations bills. The other eight appropriations bills are being extended until February 2.
The measure was passed through the House by newly minted House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) with a 336-95 vote, earning more Democratic votes (209) than Republican (127). Many conservatives in the House opposed the plan because it does not include the deep spending cuts they had asked for, instead extending funding at the current levels. The measure then passed the Senate 87-11, with only one Democrat and 10 Republicans voting against it. Many senators who voted for the bill also opposed the measure, but said they wanted to avoid a government shutdown.
Johnson vowed that he will not support another stopgap funding measure, also known as a continuing resolution, and said the plan is to set the stage for a spending fight with the Democrat-controlled Senate in early 2024. Former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) was ousted from the position after passing a similar continuing resolution in September just before a potential government shutdown.
The bill "contains no spending reductions, no border security, and not a single meaningful win for the American People," the Freedom Caucus said in a statement.
Most notably, the funding measure did not include the $106 billion in wartime funding for Israel and Ukraine requested by the White House, border security funding desired by many Republicans, nor any humanitarian funding for Palestinians.
Today, we're going to break down some reactions to the measure from the left and right, then my take.
What the right is saying.
- The right is frustrated by the lackluster outcome after months of intra-party turmoil for Republicans.
- Some argue it was a mistake for the House GOP to go ahead with a short term compromise to keep the government open, while others say Speaker Johnson did what he could with limited options.
- The fiercest critics of the bill say the GOP has again shown it will never truly fight for the will of its voters.
The Wall Street Journal editorial board said “like Kevin McCarthy, Mike Johnson had no choice other than to rely on Democrats to keep the government open.”
“What’s the difference between the bipartisan stopgap funding bill that passed the House Tuesday under new Speaker Mike Johnson, and the September equivalent passed under former leader Kevin McCarthy? Answer: Nothing but the self-defeating Republican drama,” the board wrote. “Note that the GOP back-benchers aren’t threatening to depose Mr. Johnson for relying on the minority for passage—which was their excuse for ousting Mr. McCarthy and three weeks of leaderless pandemonium.”
“The decision to maintain current funding levels made the bill acceptable to Democrats and likely guarantees Senate passage. Such political compromises are the price of governance with a narrow House majority and Democratic control of the Senate and White House. The lack of a rebellion this week from the Republican rump is welcome, and apparently deposing two speakers in a few weeks was too much even for them. But it further exposes the hollow claims the McCarthy Eight made for their October exhibitionism.”
In USA Today, Ingrid Jacques criticized the bill for failing to curtail government spending as “our national debt explodes.”
“Democrats remain in denial that they’ll ever need to slow the spending spigot. And the GOP isn’t much better. In recent discussions over sending aid to Israel, for example, some Republicans suggested tying that to cuts to the IRS – which budget experts say would increase the deficit even more because the agency is responsible for bringing in revenue,” Jacques said. “Our gross national debt surpassed $33 trillion in September, and it’s rising at an ever faster clip. In the last fiscal year, the deficit doubled to about $2 trillion.’”
“Rather than waste time with infighting, Republicans should make clear the dangers of the skyrocketing debt,” Jacques wrote. “Polls continually show voters trust the GOP on the economy at record rates (for now). And if Republicans are serious about reining in the debt, then what they should focus on is winning more seats in Congress — and winning back the White House. To do that, however, they’ll have to show they can actually govern and act like adults. Is that too much to ask?”
In The Federalist, Shawn Fleetwood called the GOP “a fake opposition party with no vision for the country.”
“It didn’t take long to discover that Johnson is just as weak-kneed as his Republican predecessors,” Fleetwood said. “Here’s a little tip for Republicans: If Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., one of the House’s most radical leftists, is praising your bill and claiming it includes ‘[t]wo of the big things’ Democrats wanted, then chances are your bill sucks. Of course, none of this appears to matter to Johnson… It’s avoiding a government shutdown that’s the real problem. Not record-high federal spending; or the invasion at the U.S.-Mexico border; or the politically weaponized Justice Department; or Covid fascism; or DEI in the military; or Biden’s federal election interference; or anything else Republican voters care about.”
“Johnson and House GOP leadership’s betrayal is neither new nor surprising. It’s just another example of the fecklessness that’s infected the GOP for years. Recall last year when Senate Republicans helped Democrats pass legislation that declared war on the institution of marriage and religious liberty, targeted Second Amendment rights, and increased federal spending,” Fleetwood wrote. “Outside of a few elected Republicans, the majority of the GOP is a fake opposition party. They never fight on issues that matter when they matter and routinely cave on the major political fights of our time.”
What the left is saying.
- The left is glad a shutdown was averted but concerned about upcoming spending fights.
- Some say Johnson and the House GOP lack legislative skill and will continue to lose on spending issues.
- Others give Johnson credit for managing to pass a spending bill in his first weeks as Speaker.
In The New York Times, David Firestone wrote about “the fights that many House Republicans really want.”
“For a moment there was a feeling of bipartisan warmth on the House side of the Capitol. But it’s almost certainly a false spring, because within a day, Republicans were fighting one another over extremist demands, the far right was raging about the swamp and failure theater, and veiled threats were made that Mr. Johnson had better get with the spending-cut program fast” Firestone said. “The extremists are eager to start demanding their favorite policy provisions in the full-year spending bills for each agency that will be necessary after the stopgap.”
“Take the bill that pays for the Agriculture Department and the Food and Drug Administration, for example. The far right has been trying for weeks to insert in it a provision that would prohibit abortion pills from being distributed by mail… Another example is the bill to pay for the Justice, State and Commerce Departments. The extremists want huge spending cuts there and have demanded to slash the budget for the F.B.I., in servitude to Donald Trump’s vilification of the agency,” Firestone wrote. “These are the kinds of fights many House Republicans really want, and this week’s interim bill just kicks them down the road for a couple of months.”
In Newsweek, David Faris said “get used to House Speaker Mike Johnson capitulating.”
“Johnson and his fellow radicals are like the political equivalent of pre-parenthood adults who look on in horror at the compromises and concessions that parents make to their small kids to get through the day. To the Freedom Caucus, McCarthy caving again and again on budgets was like watching bone-tired parents defrost macaroni and cheese for dinner and still have to bribe their way through a brutalizing experience,” Faris wrote. “All of which is a way of saying: It's been highly entertaining watching Republican ideologues come to terms with reality, like someone who keeps ordering Muppet sandwiches at a restaurant and harrumphing when told it's not possible.”
“The grand delusion of the House radicals is that the only thing standing between them and implementing policy via extended tantrums and extortion is the wrong leadership,” Faris said. “Anyone who disagreed with that assessment was a cuck, a squish, a RINO, a deep stater, a globalist, a member of the hated uniparty or any number of other derogatory terms that the far right has concocted to describe anyone who is remotely serious about governing the country.”
In The Washington Post, Karen Tumulty suggested “Mike Johnson might be a more skillful speaker than expected.”
“Johnson deserves credit for finding a path to keeping the government open, at least for now,” Tumulty wrote. “You can argue that what the speaker has put forward to avoid a Saturday shutdown is transparently gimmicky, but anyone who has been paying attention to the disintegration of the federal budget process has seen far worse… Democrats in the White House and the Senate who first mocked the idea are sounding open to it — probably because they haven’t been able to come up with anything better that could pass.
“Looked at another way, Johnson’s adoption of a ‘laddered’ plan is a challenge to Congress to get back to working in the more orderly fashion it was designed to operate in,” Tumulty added. “What Johnson is trying to do — and it’s an admirable goal — is nudge the appropriations committees of both houses to get back to doing their jobs… The big thing to watch now is what lawmakers do with the additional time that Congress has been given to pass regular appropriations bills. Will the two houses actually engage, or will they continue avoiding one another and their responsibility to the taxpayers whose money they spend?”
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- You can’t really judge Mike Johnson for his decision to punt on this.
- The laddered solution he proposed is novel, and it could be an effective compromise towards progress.
- I’m not sure what more Republicans could have expected from him given how evenly divided our government is.
When Mike Johnson was chosen as Speaker, here is part of what I wrote about his inexperience:
I suppose there is a world where this works to his advantage — maybe the novelty of his Speakership and his lack of enemies cracks open some advantage for Republicans to get their agenda through that I'm not thinking of. Maybe Biden and Democrats struggle to navigate a Johnson speakership because so much about him is unknown. But I doubt it. I think it is far more likely Johnson feels the entire weight of the world on his shoulders in short order and it becomes clear to everyone that he was thrown into the deep end of the pool before learning to swim.
It wouldn't be fair to pass judgment on Johnson as speaker based only on this laddered stopgap funding bill — his solution to an impossibly difficult situation he was dropped into with very little time to negotiate — so I’m not going to. Based on the circumstances, punting is an understandable thing to do.
In fact, Johnson probably deserves more credit than criticism for trying a novel approach, splitting the deadlines in hopes of separate and more focused negotiations. We'll see if it works, but I think it’s a clever way to buy more time and put more pressure on his colleagues to try to get what he wants. As I've said repeatedly, I very much support Johnson's stated goal of voting on individual appropriations bills and avoiding stopgap funding and massive omnibus bills to keep the government running.
It's also true that talking the talk is a lot different than walking the walk. Johnson and other fiscal conservatives can talk a big game about how we need to stop spending, make huge cuts to the budget, and refuse to keep extending short-term spending bills. But actually negotiating with the other party, agreeing on places to cut the budget, and passing something is a whole different ballgame — even for the Speaker of the House.
To reiterate, Johnson was thrown into a high-stakes negotiation with some of the most powerful people on the planet as a relatively green U.S. representative. Here is the reality of the situation: Republicans have a very slim majority in the House, with plenty of divisions and a wide range of intra-party views about spending. Democrats have a very slim majority in the Senate, and a Democratic president sitting in the White House. Our government, much like our people, is deadlocked in division. It is hard for me to imagine a scenario where Republicans can make the kind of spending cuts they want while also securing their desired funding for the military, border security, and other conservative priorities they are pushing.
If you don't believe me, just look at what has already happened this month. Republicans had to pull two funding bills just last week because their own intraparty disagreements didn't garner them the votes to pass them. If Johnson can't even get his caucus in the Republican-majority House to align on a transportation bill, how is he ever going to pass 12 individual appropriations bills with a Democratic-controlled Senate and Joe Biden in the White House?
Anyone surprised that Johnson ended up doing almost exactly what McCarthy did hasn't been paying attention. I'm not entirely sure what the House Republicans who ousted McCarthy expected. The fact conservatives won't move to oust him is proof that their vendetta against McCarthy was as personal as it was political — or it's proof that they know Johnson is the best they are going to get.
What does this mean for the future? Odds are that continuing to send money to Ukraine is going to be one of the biggest fights of future spending bills. Senate and House Republicans appear deeply divided on the issue, which means Johnson won't just have to overcome Democratic objections to cut or lessen funding — he is going to have to go to battle with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), too.
All the while, the most obvious solutions to addressing the debt — reforming social security or collecting more tax revenue — are two things both parties continue to avoid. Johnson's days as Speaker have just begun, but the reality of the hand he's been dealt is starting to settle in.
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Your questions, answered.
Q: I’ve heard people say, “If Donald Trump was still in office, the war in Ukraine would never have started. Putin would have been too afraid of Trump.” They say similar things about the ramping up of other communist activities around the world recently, too, such as China’s activity in Cuba. How true or false do you think that statement is?
— Kim in Utah
Tangle: I think it is just about impossible to say. But I'm happy to share the arguments for and against the best way I see it, then briefly give my own view.
The best argument that this wouldn't have happened under Trump is, first and foremost, that it didn't happen under Trump. He was president for four years, and Putin didn't invade Ukraine in that time. Trump was often criticized for his praise of the authoritarian leader, but their relationship seemed to give him an open line to Putin. It's plausible that Trump, receiving intel that an invasion might be imminent, could have used straightforward diplomacy to talk Putin off the ledge.
It's also true that Trump's foreign policy was pretty unpredictable, at least in his rhetoric, and that could have been a deterrent. Nobody was ever totally sure what he would do. Notable decisions like the assassination of Qassim Soleimani left a lot of mystique around Trump’s positions, and it's possible that Putin feared an invasion would have provoked a response he was unprepared for. It's also plausible that Trump would have wanted to preempt any such invasion, given the war's impact on things like food and gas prices, increases in which Trump would have wanted to prevent. This is likely why some 62% of Americans believe Putin wouldn't have invaded under Trump.
On the other hand, the most important thing to remember about Putin's invasion is that it was long-planned. Put simply: Putin views the fall of the Soviet Union as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” He has long sought to bring Ukraine back under Russian control, and no president was likely to be able to dissuade him of that vision.
Trump also took a deeply adversarial stance with Ukraine. He threatened to withhold its military funding (which led to his first impeachment) and suggested that Ukraine should accept the annexation of Crimea. In that context, the idea that he would have been capable of or even willing to stop a Putin invasion is hard to believe. Some think his posture toward NATO and Ukraine is actually what convinced Putin that he could invade without fear of a military response from the U.S. and the rest of Europe.
Then there's this reality: When Trump was in office, Putin was mostly getting what he wanted. When Trump lost to Biden, Putin was staring down a president who was much more openly defensive of Ukraine and adversarial to Russian interests. So there is an odd dynamic here where Putin's invasion could have become more necessary in his eyes because under Biden, Russia's influence was waning and Russia's standing was diminished. That argument says basically that Trump did prevent an invasion, but only by ceding diplomatic ground to Putin over and over.
It's also true that key to Russia's justification for the war is the "security dilemma," the idea that NATO's bolstered security is an inherent threat to Russia. In other words, building up NATO's defenses around Russia was a provocation, and Russia responded to that provocation. Here's the thing, though: Trump both oversaw that expansion and undermined it.
So, what do I think? It’s simple: Putin always wanted to "retake" Ukraine, always planned to, and was always going to find a way to. It just so happened he thought the clearest path to do so was through an all-out invasion in 2022. I don't think Trump would have changed anything but the U.S. and NATO response, and I don't think he could have talked Putin out of a belief he has held publicly for decades. It's impossible to know for sure, but that's my instinct.
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Under the radar.
President Biden's campaign is considering launching a TikTok account to connect with young voters, even as his administration has banned its use on government devices and continues to try to regulate the app. The decision comes at a time when a bipartisan coalition of politicians and think tanks have raised concerns about TikTok's security, and in the wake of a wave of negative stories about the app. Just last week, Osama bin Laden's "Letter to America" went viral with young TikTok influencers, many of whom expressed shock at how the former Al-Qaeda's leader's criticism of the U.S. resonated with them. And yet, those same young voters are crucial to Biden's 2024 chances, which is why he's considering using the app for voter outreach. Axios has the story.
- 98%. The percentage of ‘No’ votes on the House’s stopgap funding bill that came from Republicans.
- $34 trillion. The U.S. national debt as of November 16.
- $67 billion. The U.S. national deficit for 2023 as of October.
- $88 billion. The U.S. deficit through the same period in 2022.
- 35. The number of days the last U.S. government shutdown lasted, from December 22, 2018 to January 25, 2019.
- 7. The average length (in days) of government shutdowns since 1981.
- 14. The total number of U.S. government shutdowns since 1981.
- 9. The number of shutdowns since 1981 that occurred while the House and Senate were controlled by different parties.
- 3. The number of shutdowns that occurred while Republicans controlled the House and Senate.
- 2. The number of shutdowns that occurred while Democrats controlled the House and Senate.
- One year ago today we didn't have a newsletter, but we'd just published a piece on why Democrats over-performed in the 2022 midterms: It's abortion, stupid.
- The most clicked link in Thursday's newsletter was the House Ethics Committee report on Rep. George Santos (R-NY).
- Let's be indirect: 722 Tangle readers responded to our poll asking about military intervention in Iran, with 57% saying we should try to avoid direct military confrontation. 25% said we should be open to direct confrontation, 14% said we should avoid it at all costs, and 3% said we should pursue it. "Avoid direct confrontation unless allies can be obtained to support intervention," one respondent said.
- Nothing to do with politics: The new A.I. usage of "hallucinate" makes it Cambridge Dictionary's word of the year.
- Take the poll. What do you think of Speaker Johnson's strategy of splitting the full-year appropriations bill? Let us know!
Have a nice day.
Four times a year, up to 150 people in Minneapolis, Minnesota, gather around big white-clothed tables, eat a chef-prepared multicourse dinner, and talk to guests next to them. The event isn’t a fancy gala or political fundraiser, but rather an effort by a program called Stories Behind the Menu, a non-profit which hosts a quarterly series of dinner events designed to get people from different backgrounds and cultures together to learn about one another over a meal. "Conversation and food — if we start there, we can have a great courageous conversation," said Chaz Sandifer, founder of Stories Behind the Menu. Sandifer got the idea after talking to Sean Sherman, aka the "Sioux chef," founder of Owamni, a James Beard Award-winning restaurant that serves food from indigenous cultures. Sandifer said the events draw people from different racial, ethnic, and political backgrounds, and has seen how having a friendly and civil event can build bridges and break down divides. The Minneapolis Star Tribune has the story.
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