Jan 29, 2020

Mitch McConnell loses control (for now).

Mitch McConnell loses control (for now).

Plus, a question about Chinese spying.

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Today’s read: 7 minutes.

The contours of the impeachment trial might be changing, an important automation story and a question about Huawei.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Photo: Gage Skidmore | Flickr

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Panic about the coronavirus continues to spread. China has confirmed that the virus has now killed 132 people so far, all of them inside China. But it’s also been found in countries outside of China, including the U.S. A quick bit of perspective: Remember that this year’s flu season has already killed 8,200 people, with 15 million cases in America alone, and most Americans don’t even get their flu shot. Still, if you’re worried about coronavirus, I’d suggest this resource: a reader from Washington who works for a healthcare response network sent it in. It’s Washington State’s advisory about the coronavirus, pertinent info and tips on avoiding it. Click.

What D.C. is talking about.

Mitch McConnell may be losing control. The Republican Senate Majority leader has a reputation for being a calculated, cold-blooded killer when it comes to getting things done his way. Until this week, it was largely expected that Republicans in the Senate would vote to block new witnesses in the impeachment trial and acquit the president by Friday. But the reporting on John Bolton’s book manuscript, which alleges Trump told him he wanted to keep “freezing $391 million in security assistance to Ukraine until officials there helped with investigations into Democrats including the Bidens,” has thrown everything into question. Now important Senate Republicans are saying — behind closed doors — that they plan to vote for new witnesses during the crucial vote on Friday. Then last night, The Wall Street Journal reported that McConnell told Republicans in a closed-door meeting he no longer had the Republican votes to stop new witnesses from coming forward. On Wednesday morning, the news was dominating the homepage of every major news outlet, on both sides of the aisle.

The Wall Street Journal homepage screenshot.
Fox News homepage screenshot.
The Washington Post homepage screenshot.
HuffPost homepage screenshot.
The New York Times homepage screenshot.

What the right is saying.

It’s quite split. Yesterday, the president’s lawyers wrapped up the third day of defense by arguing that Bolton’s book manuscript is “inadmissible” and framing him as a disgruntled ex-employee trying to get payback. They also reminded everyone that the election was months away and it should be left to the voters. Republican senators backing the president continue to claim they have enough evidence to acquit Trump already, and that his actions do not come close to rising to the level of an impeachable offense. Some senators, particularly those who are in dangerous 2020 races, began floating the idea of a “witness swap” or “one-for-one” witness game where Democrats picked one witness (likely Bolton) and Republicans picked one witness (likely Hunter or Joe Biden). Former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly seemed to back Bolton, telling an audience “If John Bolton says that in the book, I believe John Bolton.”

Other Republicans are less worried about the McConnell news. McConnell’s former Chief of Staff Josh Holmes responded to the WSJ story by saying “not sure about this. I’m still betting if you see the whites of John Bolton’s eyes in the Senate, you’ll see the glassy gaze of Hunter Biden’s alongside him. I don’t think they’re going to vote to launch this Hindenburg. At least not yet.” President Trump went scorched earth on Wednesday morning, tearing into Bolton for the first time — something he’s done to many of the former advisers he’s hired and fired in the last three years. He tweeted: “For a guy who couldn’t get approved for the Ambassador to the U.N. years ago, couldn’t get approved for anything since, ‘begged’ me for a non Senate approved job, which I gave him despite many saying ‘Don’t do it, sir,’ takes the job, mistakenly says ‘Libyan Model’ on T.V., and many more mistakes of judgement [sic], gets fired because frankly, if I listened to him, we would be in World War Six by now, and goes out and IMMEDIATELY writes a nasty & untrue book. All Classified National Security. Who would do this?”

What the left is saying.

Democrats sense blood in the water. The Bolton revelations are huge, and so far they’ve done enough to bring over Mitt Romney and Susan Collins firmly in favor of witnesses. That means they need two more Republicans to come over before the dam breaks, and then it’s possible more Republicans in purple districts will vote for witnesses. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Lamar Alexander still seem the most likely to vote in favor of witnesses. Senate Minority Leader and New York Democrat Chuck Schumer has responded to claims that Bolton “isn’t credible” by saying they should call Bolton forward to hear from him if they believe that. Schumer and other Democrats have also rejected the idea of a witness swap or any deal around witnesses — they want “relevant” witnesses like Bolton and other former or current Trump officials and associates. Republicans proposed allowing the Senate to read Bolton’s book manuscript in a classified setting, and Schumer rejected that too, saying it was “absurd” to force the manuscript to be read behind closed doors when it’s a book that will soon be public. The Wall Street Journal report has invigorated the party and they see an opening where witnesses could be called to the trial. Liberal activists are lighting up the phone lines of the Senate switchboard. Less talked about, though, is what red-state Democrats like West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin are going to do. It’s totally possible that Democrats get four Republican votes and then someone like Manchin votes with Republicans and throws the whole thing into another tizzy. Manchin, this morning, indicated he would be open to calling Hunter Biden as a witness — which would make him the first Democratic senator to say that (by my count).

My take.

If Mitch McConnell wiggles out of this one, I think he’ll firmly cement himself as one of the most powerful and significant political leaders of all-time. He has everything against him. The vast majority of registered voters want witnesses to testify. A well-respected Republican with a long history in the party is writing a book saying Trump did exactly what he is accused of. Several members of the Republican Senate face tough re-elections in states where they could pay the price for voting against witnesses. The press is in a total frenzy over this story. It was a complete blindside to his plans. And yet… he’s still got a chance and a couple of days to get out of it.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: this looks really bad for Republicans, the evidence against Trump seems pretty damning, and I absolutely think the American people should hear from John Bolton. If I were Democratic senators, I wouldn’t even sweat the prospect of Hunter Biden or Joe Biden being called forward — let them come. They would be smeared, surely, but it would probably be worth the spectacle (politically) for them and I think in the end there’s far more evidence that Trump did something wrong than there is that Joe or Hunter Biden did something wrong. But McConnell has his reputation for a reason, and it’s impossible to know what levers he’s pulling in the dark. What promises is he making? What threats is he leveling? What deal is he cooking up? He’s got about 48 hours until the witness vote on Friday and who knows what stories break before then.

There’s a better chance, right now, that we’ll have witnesses than there ever has been. In fact, if I were betting, I would probably bet on witnesses being called forward — and I haven’t felt that way a single time during this whole process. But it’s impossible not to imagine a world where McConnell finds a path out of this and can keep his most vulnerable Republicans in line. He’s done it before and I imagine he can do it again.

Your questions, answered.

Reminder: Asking a question is easy. All you have to do is reply to this email and write in. I’ve gotten several awesome questions this week and I’m really looking forward to digging in!

I have a question that is a little more international. I saw a lot of people freaking out about the news that England is going to use this Chinese company to build out their 5G network. This seemed like a perfectly fine thing to me. The technology is really important. What’s the major concern?

- Tim, Buffalo, NY

Note: I know I have a lot of readers from China. I would love to hear from you about this question if you’re interested in sending something in!

Tangle: The announcement that the United Kingdom would be allowing Huawei to build its next-generation 5G networks is huge news for a few reasons.

First, it’s a big middle finger to the United States. Trump and the Trump administration had been pushing the United Kingdom to keep Huawei out (I’ll get to why in a second). Given that Britain just elected Boris Johnson as its new prime minister, this is one of the first big moves he’s made. And it puts the longstanding U.S.-U.K. relationship on a bit of dicey ground.

Second, it’s a major security risk. Last year, the FBI, CIA and NSA intelligence officials were telling Americans to not even use Huawei-made phones in the United States. The prevailing belief amongst those intelligence agencies is that they are concerned China is gaining “positions of power inside our telecommunications network.” This would allow Chinese spies and intelligence agencies to modify or steal information and conduct “undetected espionage.” Because Huawei was founded by an engineer from China’s People Liberation Army, it’s seen by many in the U.S. as an arm of the Chinese government.

Third, given those concerns about espionage, it’s a particularly big deal that the United Kingdom is getting on board. Few countries have closer intelligence relationships than the U.S. and the United Kingdom. You may have heard of the “Five Eyes,” which refers to Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States. Those five countries are joined together in a signals intelligence
(SIGINT) collaboration — meaning they work together to intercept, eavesdrop and share intelligence information gathered from signals like telecommunications or electronic devices. So, if Chinese government-controlled telecommunication begins building out telecommunications infrastructure in England, that’s a very big deal.

Finally, it throws into question what happens across Europe. There were reports that the German government was in possession of “smoking gun”  evidence that Huawei was working with the Chinese government. Huawei has categorically denied all of these claims and maintains that it is protecting the security and privacy of its customers in order to become reliable enough to enter markets outside China. It’s totally possible there is a lot of fear-mongering going on here and the U.S. is protecting profits, not security. But the western world doesn’t seem convinced. Boris Johnson hopping on board could leave many European countries deciding that they don’t want to get left behind in the race to 5G, which will be the next level of telephone and internet speed, so they may follow his lead.

This is all playing out in a pretty shadowy world, so we’ll need more reporting to really understand the threat. But it is absolutely a huge deal and there will be long-term ramifications for whatever happens.

A story that matters.

In a German facility, a new robot that looks like an electronic arm is successfully sorting items out of a series of boxes and moving them into another series of boxes. In the world of smartphones, apps, electric cars, rocket ships and so many other incredible tech advancements, this may seem pretty benign. But it’s not. The task of sorting objects in a factory is one that has been done by humans for more than a hundred years. A robot arm that can successfully identify and sort objects has been out of the reach of even the most advanced artificial intelligence — until now. Low wage workers across the planet who work in warehouses of major companies like Amazon or Walmart stand to be impacted. While factories are already highly automated, this new advancement could push forward the role tech and automation have had in job loss — and it’s sparking a lot of coverage. The New York Times has the story here.


  • 32,800. The speed, in miles per hour, that two satellites will be traveling at when they have a “near miss” over Pittsburgh on Saturday night.
  • 50 to 100. The distance, in feet, that the satellites are expected to pass each other by.
  • 1 in 10. The odds the satellites collide with each other.
  • 75%. The percentage of registered voters who said witnesses should testify in the Senate impeachment trial, according to a new Quinnipiac poll.
  • 49%. The percentage of registered Republican voters who said witnesses should testify in the Senate impeachment trial, according to a new Quinnipiac poll.
  • 76%. The percentage of Democratic voters age 18-34 who say they will support Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren in the primary race.
  • 3%. The percentage of Democratic voters age 18-34 who say they will support Joe Biden in the primary race.
  • 16%. The percentage of Democratic voters age 65 and up who say they will support Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren in the primary race.
  • 36%. The percentage of Democratic voters age 65 and up who say they will support Joe Biden in the primary race.
  • 50. The number of U.S. military personnel who have now been diagnosed with concussions and traumatic brain injuries following the Iranian missile attack in Iraq earlier this month.

Have a nice day.

With peaceful times flourishing, Germany has decided to convert 62 military bases into wildlife sanctuaries. “We are fortunate that we can now give these places back to nature,” the Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks said. The bases account for about 31,000 hectares or 40,000 soccer fields. It’s a positive sign for Germany’s commitment to the environment when they could have sold the land off in the private sector for profit instead. Click.

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