Nov 24, 2020

Joe Biden's first Cabinet picks.

Joe Biden's first Cabinet picks.

Who are they and what does it mean?

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.

Antony Blinken (right) was chosen as Secretary of State for Joe Biden’s administration. Photo: Bundesministerium für Europa, Integration und Äusseres


As many of you noticed yesterday, “A story that matters” was accidentally copied and pasted into the newsletter twice. A fun little look behind the scenes: every morning, I write the newsletter in the Substack dashboard, then copy and paste it into a Google doc where it’s reviewed and fixed up by editors. Then I make final adjustments in the Google document and copy it back into the Substack dashboard to send out right before noon. This, as you might guess, can lead to the occasional copy and paste errors (or sometimes forgetting to pull over an edited section) which has been responsible for some past Tangle corrections. Anyway, that was a first — and I appreciate those of you who flagged it for me!

Quick hits.

  1. President Trump cleared the way for the Joe Biden administration to begin its transition process after Michigan certified its results and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected central arguments to the president’s latest legal challenges. Pennsylvania also certified its election results this morning. The president has still not conceded, but General Services Administration chief Emily Murphy said Monday that resources would be given to the Biden administration this week.
  2. California Democrat Dianne Feinstein announced she was stepping down as the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Feinstein faced criticism for her handling of the Amy Coney Barrett confirmation hearings.
  3. Charles Koch said in an “Axios on HBO” interview that he “screwed up by being partisan” instead of using his network of political spending in a more nonpartisan way. Koch, at 85, is one of the most important conservative political donors alive — and this was his first television interview in four years.
  4. House Democrats and Republicans are working together on a set of ideas to reign in tech monopolies. Early conversations are indicating the potential for bipartisan progress on new antitrust legislation.
  5. Global stocks are rising with the news of successful COVID-19 vaccines and the beginning of Biden’s presidential transition. However, more than 21 million Americans are still collecting unemployment benefits.

What D.C. is talking about.

Joe Biden’s first cabinet picks. Biden has named six crucial members of his foreign policy and national security teams, including Antony Blinken as Secretary of State. He’s also reportedly going to name Janet Yellen, the former Federal Reserve Chair, as treasury secretary. Here’s a brief intro to all six of them, including who holds their positions now:

Antony Blinken, Secretary of State (position currently held by Mike Pompeo): Blinken served as deputy secretary of state and deputy national security adviser under President Barack Obama. He’s a longtime Biden ally who has been advising him since his time in the Senate.

John Kerry, Special Envoy for Climate (this is a new role created by the Biden administration): Kerry is a former Secretary of State himself under Barack Obama and helped negotiate the Paris Climate accords. He was also the 2004 Democratic nominee for president and served as a senator from Massachusetts. He’ll sit on the National Security Council and be the first Cabinet-level appointee ever who is solely focused on climate change.

Alejandro Mayorkas, Secretary of Homeland Security (position currently held by Chad Wolf in an acting capacity): Mayorkas was a deputy secretary in the Department of Homeland Security under the Obama administration. He is the son of Jewish Cuban refugees and the first Latino and immigrant (he was born in Cuba) ever to lead the DHS. He worked on the implementation of DACA under Obama, the program that helped ensure children who were brought here illegally as migrants weren’t deported.

Jake Sullivan, National Security Advisor (position currently held by Robert C. O’Brien): At 43 years old, Sullivan will be one of the youngest people to ever serve in this role. He’s been advising Biden on domestic policy during the campaign, but also worked as Biden's national security adviser during Barack Obama’s second term, and was head of policy planning for Hillary Clinton when she was secretary of state.

Avril Haines, Director of National Intelligence (position currently held by John Ratcliffe): Haines served as deputy national security adviser and deputy director of the CIA under Obama, where she was the architect of the drone program to kill terrorists that often resulted in civilian casualties. She was also deputy chief counsel of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2007-2008 when Biden was chairman. If confirmed, Haines would become the first woman Director of the Intelligence Community.

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations (position currently held by Kelly Craft): Thomas-Greenfield served for 35 years in the foreign service and oversaw the bureau of African Affairs under Obama. She retired from government work in 2017. She has said her plan is to rebuild the State Department after being called back into public service.

Given the importance of the role, we’re going to mostly focus on Antony Blinken today — who will be replacing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The Secretary of State is the most important cabinet position in driving U.S. foreign policy, immigration policy and navigating our relationships abroad, and requires Senate confirmation.

What the left is saying.

The left is mostly supportive of these appointments, and most of the support is driven by the fact that so far, all of Biden’s appointments are viewed as marked improvements from Donald Trump’s. Graeme Wood summed up this view well in The Atlantic.

“First the good news: Blinken, Flournoy [Michele Flournoy, Biden’s potential choice for defense secretary], and Sullivan are not widely remembered by ordinary, non-Beltway people, because they were hypercompetent public servants who tended not to make hilarious, unforced errors,” he wrote. “They did not, like the current secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, joke about canceling the result of a U.S. election, or swear at a journalist while quizzing her about world geography. They knew their job and took it seriously—unlike, say, Rick Perry, who discovered only after his nomination as secretary of energy that his main task was to oversee a nuclear arsenal capable of rendering the planet uninhabitable. At any point in the past eight years or so, you could have shaken Blinken, Flournoy, and Sullivan awake in the middle of the night and appointed them to these positions, and they would have been at their desk and ready to do their job by sunrise.”

But he also noted that the last time these people were in office, things were rather disastrous.

“The bad news is that 2016, the last full year in which this hypercompetent team was in power, was a bit of a nightmare, particularly in the Middle East,” he added. “The Obama administration had learned the lesson of Iraq, where regime change and nation building had failed. Instead it tried supporting Libyan rebels with weapons but not nation building, and supporting Syrian rebels with neither weapons nor nation building. Both countries devolved into apocalyptic messes. I seem to remember a group called ISIS that would slaughter dozens of innocent civilians at a time, not only in Iraq and Syria but also in places such as Paris and Orlando. Central Europe had to digest a massive refugee flow from Syria and Afghanistan, and the resulting borborygmus upended European politics and enabled a populist wave that has yet to crest.”

In Slate, Fred Kaplan explained that Biden’s national security staff appears to be the core of the “young guard” from the Obama administration that often created friction with the “old guard” of national security experts. “If past is precedent,” he notes, “the Biden years may see fewer big wars but more humanitarian interventions.” That’s because Blinken, Sullivan and Haines were often opposing escalations in places like Afghanistan but supporting certain interventions in places like Syria.

“Yet this clear virtue of intellectual harmony carries the risk of groupthink: If the top officials share the same assumptions and experiences, creative thinking—important in dealing with a fast-changing world—may get short shrift,” Kaplan wrote. “These officials are smart enough to know that what worked a decade ago may not work now, but they might be less open to new approaches.”

What the right is saying.

The right has mostly been critical of the picks, though it is not because they are “radicals” or far-left progressives. Instead, many of the appointees are the same people who got us into the foreign policy messes under the Obama administration — and with little diversity there is fear rising that we’ll end up there again.

“Trump's ‘America First’ orientation in foreign policy didn't come from nowhere, and didn't triumph at the polls for no reason,” Noah Millman wrote in The Week. “It was a blunt response to a foreign policy that appeared to many to have been failing for a quarter century — failing to preserve and enhance American power, and failing to deliver for the American people… Inasmuch as there was a strategy behind all this activity, it aimed at preserving American primacy rather than protecting specific American interests. The result, too often, was instability abroad and an increasing strain on America's military…

“When America pulled out of Iraq and declined to intervene in Syria, ISIS emerged,” Millman recalled. “That doesn't mean that America can't or shouldn't extricate itself from Afghanistan, from Libya, from Yemen — we most certainly can, and we should, because staying is achieving nothing for us. But we can't expect to be rewarded for it.”

In The American Conservative, Curt Mills explained that Blinken will receive the same praise and support as Trump appointees like H.R. McMaster did — because he’s a “centrist hawk” who proves Biden values loyalty and is keeping his closest advisers, the people he knows best, at his side as he enters office.

“The concern, for some, over Blinken is not that he is a wild-eyed radical,” Millis said. “Rather, it is that his policy views are emblematic of a broader rot within the American establishment— an establishment which has closed ranks in recent days to oppose moves such as leaving Afghanistan. Blinken was among those in the Obama administration, including Secretary of State John Kerry, who advocated privately for ramped-up military action against Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad. Obama, after considerable oscillation, eventually rejected such an enhanced policy during his second term. The decision was to the disappointment of those like Kerry— as well as Blinken, who would one day be named the next Democratic secretary of State. Blinken’s critics also note that he was staff director for the Senate Foreign Relations committee in 2002– when Biden was its chairman and the upper chamber, including the future president, assented to the Iraq War.”

My take.

The last 48 hours have already ushered in the kinds of glitzy profiles and flowery writing that helped destroy the credibility of some mainstream journalists during the Obama administration. Almost every profile of Antony Blinken I’ve read includes a reference to his guitar playing skills and how much he loves to “jam,” or the fact he’s fluent in French, or that he’s an independent filmmaker, or how he went to some great prep school on the Upper East Side and ate lunch with so-and-so who was that famous actor’s cousin’s stepson.

A more adversarial press, such as the kind we’ve thankfully had for the last four years, might note the following:

After Blinken left the White House, he launched a consulting firm called WestExec Advisors, then became a partner at a private equity firm, and spent the next two years using contacts from his time in the Oval Office to build a large client base “at the intersection of tech and defense,” as Jonathan Guyer put it. His work for corporate and defense clients as a strategic consultant has made him lots and lots of money, and has been totally shrouded in nondisclosure agreements and non-answers about who he was advising and what he told them.

It seems that pretty much every major decision Blinken has had a hand in has been wrong. He had a leading role in crafting Biden’s support for the disastrous Iraq War, a war we have yet to climb out of. He supported the intervention in Libya, something Barack Obama actually blamed him for in a recent interview with Jeffrey Goldberg. Blinken himself admits that Obama’s Syria policy was a disaster, yet he  was crucial in pushing back against the decision to intervene there, despite Senate support, after Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons on his own civilians. Blinken worried about upsetting the political process, and when the Obama administration balked, the Syrian situation continued to devolve.

“I believe anyone who had any responsibility for our Syria policy has to look themselves in the mirror and say we failed — period,” Blinken told The Atlantic in 2019.

I hope he can still find that mirror.

In 2013, a Blinken-advised Biden was also heaping praise on Xi Jinping and insisting China’s growing power was a good thing for the world. China is now imprisoning millions of Muslim minorities, encroaching on Hong Kong and becoming more aggressive in the South China Sea (all on President Donald Trump’s watch, I might add!)

So, Blinken has been wrong on Iraq, wrong on Syria, wrong on China, wrong on Libya and when he left the White House in 2016 the Middle East was in complete chaos and ISIS was running wild. Squint hard enough, and you might just realize it’s tough to figure out exactly what this guy has gotten right.

Blinken’s worldview is that America is safer when we have friends, partners and allies. I agree. He’s shown a willingness to at least discuss a coordinated troop withdrawal with progressives who want us out of the Middle East. Fantastic. He’s said Europe is a “vital partner” and pledged to restore our allied bulwark against Russia. Love it.

His worldview is great. His experience — on paper — is stellar. He seems like a smart, decent, dedicated public servant. He’s not going to “rock the boat” and progressives were never going to get a dove in there as Secretary of State — there is no left-wing national security apparatus in D.C., and there are very few foreign policy progressive heavyweights. If the Biden administration is going to go left, it is going to be when he makes his picks for Attorney General or the Labor Department. But it’s worth pointing out that little about Blinken’s foreign policy record inspires confidence.

Noah Millman describes our current situation this way: Trump’s foreign policy has neither ended our allied commitments “nor redefined America's relationship with other powers in a productive way.” We’re still stuck in the Middle East, wading deeper into Yemen, and in a pissing contest with Iran — who is closer to having nuclear weapons than they were five years ago. We’re far more adversarial with China even as our Asian allies are growing closer to them. We’ve not taken any steps forward with disarming North Korea, only legitimized their authoritarian leadership. And the Trump administration has done little but mock and insult most of our traditional European allies.

Under the Trump administration, we’ve taken back much of ISIS’s territory and in many ways dominated the radical group. Israel also has much improved relationships with some of the Gulf states, a strong step forward. Still, things are — by most measures — quite dicey right now. With that table set, the person stepping in to navigate that minefield is perhaps one of the most boring and traditional foreign policy wonks of the last two decades — the exact kind of person who produced the results that ushered in the Trump posture on the global stage. What could go wrong?

Your questions, answered.

Q: The main issue for the majority of voters seemed to be the pandemic, and the Trump administration's poor handling of COVID-19. With that said, how do you see this election playing out if COVID-19 hadn’t happened, and the two main issues being racial tension and the economy as originally anticipated back in February? I know several former Trump supporters that only flipped their vote to Biden based on Trump’s handling of the virus. While I know this doesn’t matter in the slightest, I’m wondering if anyone had looked into data similar to this scenario.

— Stephen, Raymond, Maine

Tangle: There are two schools of thought here, and I’m still not sure where I land on them.

One is that coronavirus absolutely destroyed the president’s chances. Despite relatively stable approval ratings, the reality of this is pretty easy to understand: the economy was one of the few issues he led Biden on, and it tanked after the COVID-19 lockdowns, and the president’s behavior in response to the pandemic enraged moderates across the country. The great vaccine news didn’t come until post-election, with more than 230,000 people dead and the virus spreading more rapidly on election day than it was in late March. Americans were 8 months into this “new life” that we universally hate.

Under those conditions, even as an incumbent, it’s very tough to win.

The other school of thought here is that Trump was destined to lose regardless. This idea basically looks back at pre-pandemic polls, when Biden was already running well against Trump and when many Americans on the left and center already loathed the president. Not just disliked — but really strongly disapproved of him. It’s hard to remember the pre-pandemic world, but despite the record low unemployment, wage increases and stock market surge, Trump was still going to draw an unbelievable turnout of opposition. We saw this in 2018, when Democrats cleaned house in the midterms with record turnout, we saw it via donations to candidates across the country, and we saw it with special election victories for Democrats in states like Alabama. Under this theory, COVID-19 may have made things worse for the president, but he was never going to win against that kind of opposition.

I’m closer to the latter assessment than the former, but for a different reason. I actually think the COVID-19 stuff cuts both ways. For every moderate who sees Trump’s coronavirus response as an abject failure, I think there are also plenty of independents or new voters who saw their businesses and communities destroyed by shutdowns, who felt that the left were hypocrites and authoritarian about coronavirus restrictions, and who felt the summer’s racial justice protests were a slap in the face at a time when people were unable to have funerals or attend church. In that sense, I think the shutdowns and Trump’s open hostility toward them may have actually helped him with some voters, and it feels like an under-discussed part of the equation.

Like you, though, I also know some late breakers who voted against Trump almost solely because of COVID-19. I also know some 2016 Trump voters who voted against him because of his debate performance or because he never produced a health care plan or because of the immigration policies on the border. So I think it’s really hard to ascribe it all to one thing.

What I do think is that the more widespread availability of mail-in voting was clearly a win for Democrats, as it helped ensure millions of people voted early and safely, and relied less on getting young or elderly voters to wait in long lines on Election Day. To me, the extended length of the time to vote, the early voting drop boxes, the vote by mail push, and on the Democratic side, even Trump’s hammering it as a bad thing, all seemed to help Democrats in the presidential race more than Trump’s coronavirus response did.

Remember: you can ask a question too. Just reply and write in!

A story that matters.

On December 31st, a variety of pandemic-related relief programs are set to expire. One of the most important is the one that froze student loan payments and the collection of defaulted education debt by the federal government. Millions of Americans are going to be put back into the repayment system, and hundreds of thousands have lost their jobs or seen their wages diminish as another wave of coronavirus spreads, along with a new wave of potential restrictions. President Trump has not committed to extending the relief programs via executive order, and Congressional Democrats have failed to extend the moratoriums through September 30th as their latest bill is stalled in the Senate.


  • 67%. The percentage of voters who want a coronavirus relief package in the first 100 days of a Biden administration.
  • 53%. The percentage of Republicans who say they would vote for Trump in the 2024 GOP primary.
  • 12%. The percentage of Republicans who say they would vote for Mike Pence in the 2024 GOP primary.
  • 8%. The percentage of Republicans who say they would vote for Donald Trump Jr. in the 2024 GOP primary.
  • 80,033,996. The number of people who voted for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, the first time any presidential ticket has broken 80 million votes.
  • 73,878,907. The number of people who voted for Donald Trump and Mike Pence in the 2020 race.
  • 69,498,516. The number of people who voted for Barack Obama in 2008, which was previously the all-time record for most votes a presidential candidate had ever received.
  • 51%. The percentage of the popular vote Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have received so far in the 2020 election.
  • 47.1%. The percentage of the popular vote Donald Trump and Mike Pence have received so far in the 2020 election.

Doing good.

Tomorrow (Wednesday) will be the last Tangle this week. It’s been a long and sleepless few weeks, and I am taking Thursday and Friday off for some much-needed decompression after the election. With the holiday season here, I’d also like to do something good heading into Thanksgiving. For the next week, I’ll be donating 50% of all new subscription revenue to Heavenly HARVST, a charity run by New York City chef John Doherty that distributes food pouches with an 18-month shelf life to distressed communities.

This is a challenging time for millions, and Heavenly HARVST is a small charity where the money goes directly to supplying food for those in need (not a gigantic bureaucratic board of directors). I’ve donated frequently and always feel good about where my money is going. If you’re already a subscriber, I encourage you to consider donating to Heavenly HARVST. If you’re not a subscriber and become one between now and next Tuesday, 50% of your subscription will go to Heavenly HARVST. I’ll share the donation total next Wednesday!

Subscribe and donate!

Have a nice day.

The boom of secondhand clothing sales is helping solve the sustainability crisis in the fashion industry. In the next ten years, the secondhand clothing industry is projected to triple in value — from $28 billion to $80 billion. Researchers who study the consumption and sustainability of the clothing industry say this boom could help mitigate the environmental impact of the fashion industry, which environmentalists have been raising alarms about since the early 2000s. Thrift stores and resale platforms are driving the boom, and many are realizing secondhand clothing has identical or sometimes superior quality to unworn clothing.

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