Sep 1, 2020

Joe Biden goes on offense in Pittsburgh.

Joe Biden goes on offense in Pittsburgh.

Plus, Trump shares another COVID-19 conspiracy.

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. You can read Tangle for free, and you can reach me anytime by replying to this email. If someone sent you this email, they’re asking you to subscribe. You can do that by clicking here.

Today’s read: 10 minutes.

Joe Biden’s Pittsburgh speech, another COVID-19 conspiracy theory from Trump and some quick hits worth reading.

Reader feedback.

Yesterday, I mentioned Notre Dame as one of the colleges that was “retreating” into remote learning after trying to hold in-person classes. A Notre Dame alum who has a daughter at the school wrote in and said this was "true but not accurate.” She explained that “When faced with an outbreak, the administration spoke directly to the students to appeal to their sense of community and their own desire to stay on campus. The school resorted to just two weeks of remote learning while allowing all students, with the exception of the sick and quarantined, to maintain their current residences with the goal of getting control back for all. It seems to have worked — the positivity rate continues to drop and there were just three cases reported for yesterday with two of those coming from an extensive surveillance program they are performing alongside any required diagnostic testing to try to catch any asymptotic cases.” The school hopes to reintegrate in-person learning tomorrow.

Emily from Kansas City, Missouri, also wrote in about my description of Ady Barkan as a “disabled activist.” She said “calling Ady Barkan a ‘disabled activist’ is a pretty reductive way to refer to him considering he was an activist before his ALS diagnosis affected him physically. At the least, using people-first language would have been more appropriate in this instance (so, activist who uses a communication device; activist with a disability), but I would argue that his physical disability doesn't even need to be mentioned in this first sentence since you describe his ALS diagnosis in the next.”

Emily is right — and as someone who has interviewed Ady a few times myself, I should have been more precise with my language.

Quick hits.

  1. The full D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals has denied former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s petition to drop his criminal case by an 8-2 vote. It’s a major blow to Flynn and Trump in what is becoming a never-ending trial — and it means District Judge Emmet Sullivan will hold hearings to discuss the motion to dismiss the case. The Justice Department had moved to dismiss the charges against Flynn, who pled guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with a Russian ambassador, but the DOJ was accused of making the recommendation as a political favor to President Trump.
  2. A new Pew Research Study shows rioting and looting is rivaling COVID-19 as a top issue for voters in the 2020 election. Violent crime recently became a top five issue, according to Pew’s research. “The civil unrest unfolding in cities across the country is starting to rival the coronavirus as a source of voter concern, a possibility that could redound to President Trump’s benefit,” The Washington Examiner reports. Both campaigns have begun zeroing in on the civil unrest and trying to leverage it against the other side.
  3. The New York Times’ Michael Schmidt has a new book out that adds intrigue to the president’s mysterious visit to Walter Reed hospital in November. Trump took the unscheduled and abrupt trip without explanation to the media, and several stories “never added up” as Trump tried to explain it away as a “routine, planned interim checkup.” In Schmidt’s new book, he says: “In reporting for this book, I learned that in the hours leading up to Trump’s trip to the hospital, word went out in the West Wing for the vice president to be on standby to take over the powers of the presidency temporarily if Trump had to undergo a procedure that would have required him to be anesthetized. Pence never assumed the powers of the presidency, and the reason for Trump’s trip to the doctor remains a mystery.” Schmidt is considered one of the best-sourced reporters in Washington D.C.
  4. President Trump is traveling to Kenosha, Wisconsin, today despite the Democratic governor and local leaders asking him to stay home. The president plans to meet with law enforcement and tour businesses damaged by the riots, according to The Washington Post. "You have a community that's in the process of trying to heal," Kenosha Mayor John Antaramian said at a news briefing Monday. "There's so many things that have gone on in this community. It just seemed to me, and I think others, that it would be better for us to be able to pull together, let the community get together, and actually heal." Asked if his visit may inflame tensions, the president said, "Well, it could also increase enthusiasm and it could increase love and respect for our country. And that's why I'm going."
  5. The U.S. stock market just had the best August it has had since 1986. “All three major U.S. stock indexes have climbed for five consecutive months after a brutal February and March that ended the longest bull market on record,” The Wall Street Journal reported. “The benchmark S&P 500 has surged 35% over that period, its largest five-month percentage gain since 1938.” The S&P 500 set records last week after the federal reserve announced it was going to keep U.S. borrowing costs low for an extended period of time. “They’ve confirmed lower-for-longer rates as far as the eye can see,” Richard Dunbar, head of multi-asset research at Aberdeen Standard Investments, said. “Alongside that confirmation of cheap money and cheap discount rates, we’ve just come through a U.S. earnings season that’s been a lot better than feared.”

What D.C. is talking about.

Joe Biden. Yesterday, the Democratic nominee for president spoke at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. It was the first time Biden has campaigned in a swing state in months and his first time on the campaign trail since the Democratic convention. He used the moment to push back on President Trump’s framing of him as a leader who will let violence and chaos run wild. In perhaps the most quoted part of his speech, Biden condemned the rioting and looting in unequivocal terms.

“I want to be very clear: Rioting is not protesting,” Biden said. “Looting is not protesting. Setting fires is not protesting. None of this is protesting. It’s lawlessness. Plain and simple. And those who do it should be prosecuted."

Biden also played some offense on Trump, trying to reframe the warnings about a Biden future presidency as irrelevant to what is happening now in Trump’s America. He debuted some new attack lines, including an argument that more police officers have died of COVID-19 in America than while on patrol.

"These are not images of some imagined Joe Biden's America of the future,” Biden said. “These are images of Donald Trump's America today… Does anyone believe there will be less violence in America if Donald Trump is re-elected?"

Biden delivered the speech outside a former Pittsburgh steel mill. While most of the news focused on the recent civil unrest, perhaps the most important part of his speech in the swing state of Pennsylvania was his focus on energy. He pledged (twice) that he was not banning fracking “no matter how many times Donald Trump lies about it.” (Editor’s note: on the campaign trail, Biden repeatedly proposed getting rid of all fracking in exchanges with reporters and other candidates, though his written plan has never proposed a fracking ban.)

"You know me. You know my heart. You know my story. Ask yourself: Do I look like a radical socialist with a soft spot for rioters? Really?” Biden asked. “I want a safe America."

At the end of the event, Biden once again left without taking questions from the media.

What the left is saying.

It’s a good start. Eugene Scott wrote that Joe Biden got to set “the record straight on the topic he knows best: himself.”

“As some cities have been taken over by racial justice protests that have at times turned violent, Trump has falsely accused Biden of not speaking out aggressively enough against rioters because he claims that Biden is sympathetic to their actions,” Scott wrote. “But Biden, who built a Senate career being so tough on crime that it has cost him some liberal supporters, spoke out vehemently Monday against those who are protesting violently.”

In Vox, Ella Nilsen noted that Biden's speech was “meant to remind voters they are actually living in Donald Trump’s America.”

“Biden does not support defunding police departments,” Nilsen wrote. “His criminal justice plan calls for a $300 million investment in the Community Oriented Policing Services program to strengthen community policing, as well as attaching contingencies on federal aid for police departments to enforce certain standards of conduct. But that fact did not stop the president from making further efforts to link Biden to unrest over the weekend.”

The Washington Post editorial board pointed the finger squarely at Trump, arguing that “every gesture and every tweet from President Trump is the opposite of what he would do if he were intent on calming cities now seized by protests and violence.”

“Four years of the Trump presidency, capped off by the coronavirus pandemic and raw video footage of violence, including by police against Black people, have torn at the nation’s social cohesion,” the board wrote. “Amid a widening sense that restraint is fraying and grievances have become intractable, no countervailing emollient force can rival the potency of the president’s bullhorn. Mr. Biden, in blaming the president and appealing for calm, seems all but drowned out. As Mr. Trump heads to Wisconsin on Tuesday, against the pleas of the state’s governor, there seems every reason to fear he may further provoke protests.”

What the right is saying.

Better late than never. Though Biden condemned rioting and violence in the wake of George Floyd’s death, many Republicans were critical of Democrats for not touching on the issue during the Democratic National Convention — and critical of Biden for not speaking to it until midweek last week. This kind of forceful condemnation was overdue in the face of the latest spate of rioting. Even then, plenty felt the remarks came up short.

“What we heard was largely a denunciation of Donald Trump and not of the extremists on the political left,” The Wall Street Journal editorial board said. “Surely Mr. Biden knows that the protests and riots since Memorial Day are overwhelmingly led by Black Lives Matter and Antifa. Mr. Biden didn’t mention those groups in his prepared remarks, and he never used the words ‘left-wing’ to describe those who are burning businesses and attacking police precincts. Mr. Biden conflated the two sides, though leftist militants are dominating urban streets.”

The paper added that the concern many Americans have is Biden “won’t be strong enough to take on the radical left. On that point his speech wasn’t reassuring.”

Bret Stephens made a similar case in The New York Times, with an op-ed published just hours after Biden’s speech. Stephens said he’s been “fairly enthusiastic” about Biden’s candidacy because it represents the moderate Democratic party winning over the far-left one. But his “wan and sometimes unsteady speech in Pittsburgh” isn’t going to assuage voters.

“Can the left be trusted with power? Let me ask that question more specifically. Can the left be honest that the tragedies unfolding today in American cities are as much the story of insufficient policing as they are of abusive policing?” he asked. “Does it get that ‘law and order’ is a precondition to civil liberty, not an impediment to it? Is it willing to say that the American founders who bequeathed us the institutions of liberal democracy should be honored, not despised? And does Joe Biden have the nerve to stand up to the extremes in his own party, or does he just mean to appease them?”

Kaylee McGhee was more harsh in her Washington Examiner op-ed. “Does Biden think we’re stupid?” the headline asked. McGhee argued that Biden stayed silent for months while hundreds of innocent people lost their livelihoods and certain parts of these cities were destroyed beyond recognition — only delivering this speech after it became clear Democrats had lost the narrative.

“Presidential candidate Joe Biden spent more time condemning the presence of federal officers in Portland than he did condemning the behavior of the mobs that forced the federal government to take action in the first place,” McGhee wrote. “He said nothing against the so-called CHAZ when Seattle protesters took the six-block zone for their own and forcefully removed law enforcement from the area. Nor did he comment on the looting that forced Chicago to close down its connecting bridges so as to prevent further destruction.”

My take.

Watching Donald Trump for five years straight has made me forget what it’s like to see a run of the mill speech like this. In some ways, it’s comforting to just see a normal, bread and butter political speech. It’s almost relaxing, even if Biden did once again have a moment where it seemed like his brain melted in front of us.

In another way, it’s also incredibly boring — and it reminds me why Trump’s style is so effective and attractive to so many Americans. Biden is about as good as it gets (besides Obama and a few other modern politicians) at talking and sounding like your “average Joe.” But none of them hold a candle to Trump’s bizarre authenticity, which basically amounts to freestyling in front of the press at this point. And even when Trump isn’t making sense, or is lying, or is rambling, he just feels like he’s riffing, and it’s hard to look away, and harder still to feel like you’re getting anything but the “real” Trump.

That being said, on the whole, I think it was what Biden needed to do. I’m overwhelmed with frustration that he continues to avoid taking questions (I also think it’s a serious political miscalculation). But, as far as framing the protest goes, he’s not going to win over the far-left or most progressive liberals in the country — they’re all going to hold their noses and vote for him because they’d rather vote for a ham sandwich than Donald Trump. The key for Biden is holding together the core of his base, which is Black voters, suburban women and moderate Democrats. It seems fair to conclude this base has real reservations about what they’re seeing on the 6 o’clock news, and McGhee and other conservative critics are right that Biden and Democrats are responding to that reality.

The debate over violent civil unrest and its efficacy in impacting change is robust — but politically there isn’t much debate at all. It’s a loser. William McGurn wrote that “The problem for Mr. Biden isn’t so much the rioters themselves. Those looting shops along Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, shooting people in Portland, Ore., or setting cars on fire in Kenosha aren’t Biden voters. The likelihood is they’re not voters at all, regarding America’s political system as rotten to the core,” an assessment I tend to agree with.

Most likely, the people rioting believe, with more than a little reason, that the political system is irredeemable. That’s one major distinction between them and the right-wing provocateurs who attend these protests as “militia,” or in Trump caravans — the folks on the right are voters and are diehard Trump supporters.

Biden has disavowed, condemned, rejected and criticized the rioting and looting for months. There is legitimate criticism that those condemnations have not been forceful or frequent enough — and Biden is paying the price for that politically. If the election is about civil unrest, my money is on Trump winning. Biden has about 60 days to change the narrative and refocus the country on COVID-19, unemployment and Trump’s character if he wants to win. Yesterday was a good start, but he’s got a long way to go.

Your questions, answered.

Reminder: Asking questions is easy (so is giving feedback). All you have to do is reply to this email and write in. I read and reply to every email, even if it takes me a few days.

Q: Can you shed some clarity on the most recent update to the CDC's COVID-19 Associated Deaths that has been all over social media this weekend? I see people claiming that the CDC is now saying 94% of the reported COVID deaths aren't actually COVID, but instead people who had COVID on their cause-of-death who are likely dying of pre-existing conditions. This allows them to say people who have terminal cancer or heart disease who caught COVID are being reported as COVID deaths when that's not really a fair claim.

— Jarrod, Tulsa, OK

Tangle: Unfortunately, this is another example of misinformation in the COVID-19 age. And it’s also a product of a bunch of people who aren’t medical professionals trying to interpret medical data.

First, the backdrop: earlier this week, the Centers for Disease Control updated its death data and resources page. On that page, in just 6% of COVID-19 deaths, the disease caused by the virus “was the only cause mentioned.” That would mean just 9,000 people died of “only” COVID-19, not the 180,000 that is normally referenced. Mel Q, a page dedicated to the QAnon conspiracy theory, took a Facebook post about that 6% number and shared it on Twitter, claiming the CDC “quietly updated the Covid number to admit that only 6%” of people actually died of COVID-19. Then President Trump retweeted that tweet, blasting it to his millions of followers. Predictably, the information took off.

The problem with all of this is that it’s complete crap. First, the CDC didn’t “quietly” update anything — those data have been on their page for months. Second, comorbidities are listed on most death certificate. People typically don’t die of one specific thing. It’s like looking at a death certificate for someone who dies in a car accident and saying “they didn’t die of a car accident! They died of head trauma!” Third, this is not new information. The CDC and health care experts have stressed since the beginning that people with preexisting conditions are those most susceptible to the virus. The issue is, in America, millions and millions of people have these preexisting conditions (like diabetes, hypertension, obesity, cancer, respiratory issues, etc.) Take this, from The Washington Post:

“Comorbidities” reported by the CDC include heart disease, obesity, diabetes and hypertension — conditions that can make a person more vulnerable to the virus. Each would be listed on a person’s death certificate, along with covid-19. Death certificates may also list sepsis, respiratory arrest, kidney failure or other conditions as the immediate cause of death, but those are caused by the infection. The virus remains the reason that they died, said Nasia Safdar, an infectious-disease professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Back in May, I wrote about the COVID-19 death count, whether it was over or undercounted, and whether hospitals were actually over-reporting COVID-19 to pad their funding. One reader who is a healthcare data analyst wrote in to contextualize some of my reporting, and I put her email into a Google document which you can read here. This is someone who deals with this data every day and understands how it’s being used to spread disinformation, and her response (though not to this story specifically) is well worth reading.

Because the entire framing was a lie, Twitter actually removed the tweet the president shared and labeled it as misinformation violating the platform’s policy on spreading fake news about COVID-19.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve written critically about Trump over and over — much to the frustration of my readers who support him. I’ll note that this — the President of the United States amplifying another bogus conspiracy theory in the middle of a pandemic — forces my hand. I try my best to write charitably about “both sides” even when I disagree with them, but Trump leaves me no choice but to call him completely unequipped for the job when he can’t go a week without elevating propaganda, lies and conspiracies to his followers. The only conclusion I can draw is that he is either a) so gullible and misunderstands his own government’s data so badly, that he actually believes the misinformation or b) he’s willing to push misinformation to the American public that endangers them, in an attempt to salvage his reputation about how he handled COVID-19, just to improve his chances for reelection.

If my goal is to be honest with my readers, I have no idea what I’m supposed to do besides call that out. And whether it’s “a” or “b,” it’s completely unacceptable.

A story that matters.

During the pandemic lockdown, opioid overdoses have surged while momentum for reform has wavered. U.S. states and cities are seeing a spike in opioid-related overdose deaths, and the American Medical Association released a paper noting that 41 states saw fatal opioid overdoses increase. “As of mid-July, for example, more than 1,100 residents in the Chicago area had died from opioid-related overdoses in 2020, about double the number during the same period in 2019, according to ProPublica.” Opioid overdose fatalities in South Carolina are up 50% over the same time period. Despite that, though, political momentum for reforms like safe injection sites or state funding for rehabilitation has faded into the background as police reform and COVID-19 have taken center-stage.


  • 6%. Joe Biden’s lead over Donald Trump amongst active duty members of the military, according to a Military Times poll.
  • 26%. The percentage of U.S. workers who have worked entirely from home in the past few weeks.
  • 72%. The percentage of U.S. adults who say news organizations do an insufficient job telling their audiences where their money comes from (note: Tangle’s money comes from you).
  • 60%. The percentage of U.S. adults who say news organizations do an insufficient job telling their audiences where there are conflicts of interest (note: Tangle has no conflicts of interest).
  • +10. Joe Biden’s lead over Donald Trump in Arizona, according to a new Morning Consult poll.
  • +9. Joe Biden’s lead in Wisconsin, according to a new Morning Consult poll.
  • +2. Joe Biden’s lead in Florida, according to a new Morning Consult poll.
  • +8. Joe Biden’s lead nationally, according to a new Morning Consult poll.

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Have a nice day.

American, Delta and United Airlines are all dropping the most-hated thing in flying: change fees. For years, the major airlines have charged customers as much as $200 when they want to change their flight ticket at the last minute. But now, with the airlines struggling during COVID-19, the biggest airlines in the country are trying to regain their appeal — and they’re shedding the widely-scorned policy for good. "It's no secret that the coronavirus pandemic has had a historic economic impact on airlines," United CEO Scott Kirby said in a video statement. "When we hear from customers about where we can improve, getting rid of this fee is often the top request."

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