Aug 10, 2020

Negotiations fall apart. Trump steps in.

Negotiations fall apart. Trump steps in.

Plus, how do Democrats win back the Senate?

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. If someone sent you this email, they’re asking you to subscribe. You can try it for free, and you can reach me anytime by replying to this email.

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Today’s read: 13 minutes.

Trump’s executive action on coronavirus relief, some awesome reader feedback and a really important question about how Democrats can win the Senate.

President Trump attempted to take back the narrative this weekend. Photo: Gage Skidmore / Flickr

Reader feedback.

In responding to Thursday's newsletter about the unemployment debate, Amanda from New York, New York, noted that “many folks in certain industries won't be able to return to their jobs, out of no fault of their own, anytime soon. Speaking specifically for folks in the arts/culture, theatre and film industries — and particularly in NYC — there's nothing to go back to at the moment."

Jeff from Aston, Pennsylvania responded to the filibuster breakdown on Friday by arguing that Republicans and Democrats use the filibuster very differently. "The filibuster has — in no material way in recent history — stopped the legislative agenda of Republicans,” he wrote. “That is because they really don't have much of a legislative agenda. They have gone around the filibuster for the only legislative objectives they really cared about (repealing Obamacare and tax cuts) and were happy to abolish the Supreme Court ‘filibuster’ themselves because it served their purposes. McConnell has supported keeping the filibuster in place because it only hampers the Democratic agenda.”

Responding to the same edition, Rich from Tacoma, Washington, noted that I described Mitch McConnell as refusing to take up the vote on Merrick Garland and “filibustering through the election.” But McConnell and Republicans were in the majority during that time — so “filibustering” is not the best way to describe what they did, since they were not in the minority. That was a nice catch.

Finally, Jonah from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, made a great callout on a story I missed. He wrote in to note that the Governor of Iowa, Kim Reynolds, re-enfranchised Iowa’s convicted felons who completed their sentences last week. 50,000 to 60,000 Iowans will now be able to vote in November as a result. In 2016, Trump won Iowa by 147,314 votes. Sen. Joni Ernst held her seat in 2014 by 94,205 votes. In 2018, District 1 swung blue by 16,900 votes. In other words: this is a huge deal for Iowan elections.

Quick hits.

  1. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer flew to Delaware to meet with Joe Biden last weekend, a sign she may be an unexpected finalist for his vice presidential pick. Whitmer has long been among the rumored candidates, and Biden has even confirmed as much. But she is the first candidate the press found out actually met with Biden in person, thanks to a leak from two high-ranking Michigan Democrats. Biden, “notorious for blowing past self-imposed deadlines,” is already past the self-imposed deadline for when he’d announce his running mate (the first week of August).
  2. Ohio Gov. Mike Dewine tested negative for coronavirus twice after a positive test before his meeting with President Donald Trump. The first test, now considered a false-positive, was a rapid antigen test administered to people who are going to come in contact with the president. After testing positive, he took follow-up tests with the polymerase chain reaction test, which is the gold standard in the medical community. Both came back negative, illustrating the problems with both tests (the rapid test being inaccurate, the polymerase test being too slow to give valuable results).
  3. More than 100 people were arrested and 13 police officers injured in a night of looting and unrest in Chicago. Police superintendent David Brown said the event was “not an organized protest” but instead “an incident of pure criminality” that began after a person was shot by police in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood. Early Monday morning, amidst the looting, shots were fired at police, who then returned fire. No injuries were reported in the shooting. “This was straight up, felony criminal conduct,” Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said of the looting. “This was an assault on our city.”
  4. William Evanina, the Trump-appointed director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, issued a “stunning” Election Threat Update for the American Public. In it, Evanina said China is interfering in 2020 to help Joe Biden, Russia is interfering to help Donald Trump and Iran is working against Trump. All three are using various measures — the primary one being an effort to help spread misinformation on social media. Democrats have been sounding the alarms over Russia’s continued disinformation campaigns and viewed Evanina’s announcement as a major win.
  5. Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) has turned up the volume on his criticisms of President Trump, saying this weekend: "The pen-and-phone theory of executive lawmaking is unconstitutional slop." For never-Trump Republicans, Sasse has been a perpetual disappointment for his unwillingness to criticize Trump despite selling himself as a moderate and independent thinker to voters. But Sasse just won his Republican primary (all but assuring his reelection), his seat is safe, and some think his criticism is a sign more Republicans may jump off the Trump train as his poll numbers fall.

What D.C. is talking about.

Trump’s executive actions. On Saturday, the president stepped in after Congress and the White House failed to strike a deal for a second wave of coronavirus relief. He signed four orders aimed at extending coronavirus relief after negotiations fell apart between Democrats, Republicans and the White House on Friday. The president announced the one executive order and three memorandums at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey.

First, he directed the federal government to provide $300 a week in additional benefits and called on states to fill in the $100 extra — extending an enhanced $400 a week unemployment benefit. The federal money for the benefits will come from the Disaster Relief Fund, which typically helps cover costs for things like the upcoming hurricane season.

Second, he directed the Treasury Department to defer the 6.2% Social Security tax on wages for employees making less than $100,000 a year through December 31. This will give employees an increase in take-home pay, but creates a liability in 2021 when the taxes would actually be due. It’s also a proposal that was rejected by both Democrats and Republicans during negotiations.

Third, he said students with federal student loans would be able to suspend their monthly payments through December 31st and that the federal government would waive interest rates during that time.

Finally, he also said there would be a moratorium on evictions from properties with government-backed mortgages — accounting for one-third of all lenders. But although his order instructs the feds to take “all lawful measures to prevent residential evictions and foreclosures” during the pandemic, it doesn’t forbid the evictions outright.

What the left is saying.

More confusion, more overreach and no solution. The left slammed Trump for signing the orders at his New Jersey golf course, a moment which he quickly tried to turn into a campaign rally in front of his guests. Because the orders aim to re-allocate already existing funds, Democrats pointed to confusion amongst state officials on how exactly they would function. The $400 unemployment benefit, for example, is only funded 75% by the federal government (using disaster relief funding).

But the rest of the money is supposed to come from state budgets — budgets that have been completely decimated by the coronavirus pandemic. “We don’t have that money,” one state official laughed about the absurdity of it when asked by a CNN reporter.

“Trump’s attempts to circumvent the partisan logjam on Capitol Hill may instead be illustrating the limits of executive power — and the costs that can come from invoking it,” The Washington Post reported. “In this case, a more long-lasting legislative solution may have been delayed with the White House deciding to act on its own.”

Many observers pointed out that three of the four actions aren’t even executive orders — they are memorandums, which carry far less weight. Despite this fact, Trump keeps calling them “bills,” which they are not.

“Having snatched money from the military for his wall, he now robs disaster relief without authorization to pay for something entirely unrelated,” Jennifer Rubin wrote in The Washington Post. “Moreover, even on its own terms, it would pay for just [five] more weeks of unemployment insurance.”

One unemployment expert said states would have to set up “entirely new” systems to hand out aid the way Trump has devised it — a process that could take months. Others pointed out that the payroll tax, which Trump suggests cutting despite opposition from Democrats and his own party, funds two of the most beloved programs in government: Medicare and Social Security. Losing tax revenue for those programs until December would put them both in jeopardy.

“When you suspend collection of the revenue that funds those two programs, you endanger their viability,” Paul Begala said on CNN. “Say it with me, Democrats: Donald Trump wants to gut Medicare and Social Security.”

What the right is saying.

The right is critical of the use of executive action for spending but supports Trump’s decision to do something after Congress failed. Some even speculated the opposite of the left’s argument: that the move was meant to light a fire under Democrats to strike a deal.

“The President was right to walk away rather than succumb to their multi-trillion-dollar blackmail,” The Wall Street Journal editorial board wrote. “They are demanding $800 billion in aid to the states, an extension of $600 a week in jobless insurance into 2021 despite its disincentive to work, and they refuse to budge on Covid-19 liability protection for businesses and nonprofits. They want election mandates on states that have nothing to do with the pandemic.”

In Fox News, Liz Peek argued that Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer were irate because Trump “boxed the Democrats in — how can they possibly challenge his orders or take his mandated benefits away from people?” There are encouraging signs in the economy, the race is tightening and Democrats are worried, Peek argued.

Paul Mirengoff agreed, saying even if it’s not effective at steadying the economy or getting immediate relief to Americans, it’s still a “masterstroke” politically.

“Since the days of FDR, the public has always seemed to approve of presidents who act to ameliorate suffering while Congress diddles,” he wrote. “A flurry of activity, even of the futile or potentially counterproductive kind, makes a president look energetic and caring. In this instance, Trump’s move might well force congressional Democrats to reach a deal. That outcome, too, would be a political win for the president.”

Some were far more cautious. In The Resurgent, David Thornton noted that Trump has now resorted to executive action and national emergencies for his border wall, an arms deal to Saudi Arabia and COVID-19 relief.

The president’s “tendency to legislate by emergency orders is one that can be easily adopted and expanded by the next Democrat in the White House,” Thornton said. “You may like Trump handing out money and managing the economy by executive fiat, but you probably won’t like it when President Biden or some other president declares a national emergency to combat climate change or gun violence.”

My take.

Let’s start with the good: the most impactful thing Trump did this weekend was sign a memorandum that directs the Department of Education to extend student loan relief for three months. This is within the bounds of his authority, it doesn’t need funding from Congress, and it will apply to most of the 43 million Americans who borrow through federal student loan programs. That’s a very big deal.

The eviction moratorium is weak but better than nothing. It’s not an order to suspend evictions but an order to evaluate what can be done to stop them. Optimistically, the housing department will come up with a better longer-lasting solution than depending on the good will of landlords. More realistically, this won’t protect renters or homeowners as Trump says it will. And remember, even if it does, it only applies to housing the federal government has its hand in.

I hesitate to say this next part, but it’s also good for Trump politically. On the whole (and I’ll get to this in a second) I think this is bad for the American public. But it puts Trump in a place one wants to be in politics. He looks like he’s doing something, he appears to be “taking control,” and he forces Democrats into literally suing him to stop him from pushing through executive action on coronavirus, making for some pretty lousy optics. Compared to where he was two weeks ago, that’s all good stuff for the Trump campaign. In a best case scenario, Democrats recognize this and it does actually push them to complete negotiations and pass a larger, more comprehensive bill with Republicans.

On to the bad: The most important thing here, for the 30 million Americans seeking relief, and for our economy, is the unemployment benefits. That’s the issue that has stymied any progress between Republicans and Democrats. $400 is a good target for the enhanced federal benefit — I endorsed it on Thursday. But how Trump gets there is just completely off the rails.

For one, Trump is diverting as much as $44 billion from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Disaster Relief Fund. That’s enough to fund the benefits for about five weeks, experts estimate optimistically, all while bankrupting the organization responsible for disaster relief right as hurricane season kicks off. Very few people — not even some of Trump’s most ardent supporters — are pretending this is a good solution.

It’s also not really $400, and is probably illegal. The order makes the federal government responsible for just $300 and asks states to fill the $100 gap. But the states are broke. Few, if any, would be able to maintain that extra benefit for more than a couple of weeks. And Congress “controls the purse,” meaning they decide how money like unemployment is appropriated. Unemployment experts were completely gobsmacked by what was happening — and it seems clear the move won’t help anyone anytime soon and could delay things long-term. Lawsuits are likely.

As for the payroll tax cut: it’s not a cut and it’s dangerous. There’s a reason Democrats and Republicans dismissed and ignored it during negotiations, despite Trump’s insistence. For one, it’s temporary relief for people who are already employed and being paid by their employers. They’ll all have to pay the taxes eventually — they can just defer them. Which means they need to save the money and will owe it later. Many of those same people already got $1,200 checks from the government, are likely to get a second round soon and, again, are employed. Which, on the totem pole of people who need help, puts them at the bottom (I’m one of those people!).

Two, it could negatively affect Social Security and Medicare — programs that support the elderly and disabled, the two groups most at-risk during the coronavirus pandemic. If it lasts for any period of time (and Trump has promised to make the cut permanent if he’s re-elected), it could bankrupt these programs.

All of this is a product of a broken Congress and partisan hackery at the leadership level. But remember, Trump’s top cabinet members have all been participating in these negotiations. In normal times, Trump would have been negotiating, too — but he’s hardly been in the room. It’s not as if the White House wasn’t involved in the breakdown of these negotiations. It participated as they fell apart. As I said Thursday, I struggle to imagine any other chain of events from the last few weeks that would make Americans more cynical about our government than the scene we’re witnessing right now.

Your questions, answered.

Remember: if you want a question answered, it’s easy. Just reply to this email and write in. You can reach me that way anytime.

Q: Why do you see Republicans holding the senate if Trump loses? Wouldn’t he bring everyone down, a la the midterms?

— Karim, Hyannis, Massachussetts

Tangle: Even if Joe Biden trounces Trump in 2020, it’ll still be difficult for Democrats to win back the Senate. That’s mainly because of how Senate elections work and how the map looks this year. First off, the current breakdown of the Senate is 53 Republicans, 45 Democrats and two independents. Both of the independents caucus with Democrats; still, it’s effectively a 53-47 advantage for Republicans.

Senators serve six-year terms. But not every senator is up for election every six years. Instead, the Senate is staggered, meaning about one-third of the 100 senators are up for election every two years. This is an intentional system created by our founders, who divided the Senate up into three classes. The goal was to prevent a sweeping takeover of one party and to bring stability to the chamber. It also promotes more democratic involvement, since important elections happen across the country every two years.

The way the classes were divided up is a little bit boring and tedious, but it’s basically done in a way to keep the Senate elections as balanced as possible while also accounting for new states and new senators (Wikipedia has a good breakdown here). Long story short, this year, Class 2 senators are up for re-election. There are 33 senators in this class, but there are a handful that are key to Democrats taking control of the Senate.

In order to take control, Democrats need to net four seats. If they net three, there will be a 50-50 tie and they’ll have to win the presidential election to have control (vice presidents are the tiebreaker in the Senate).

First, Democrats have to defend Alabama. Doug Jones won that seat in a special election, but that was almost entirely because he was running against Republican Roy Moore in a race that got national attention. Moore is an accused pedophile and a radical politician who also happened to be horrible at campaigning. This time, Jones is running against Tommy Tuberville, a very popular former college football coach with a clean political record who just trounced former Attorney General Jeff Sessions in the Republican primary. Trump is still popular in Alabama and Jones is likely to lose this seat, so Democrats come out of the gate down one. 54-46.

Then there’s Michigan: Joe Biden is up big on Trump there, but the race is tightening. If Biden wins, it’s likely Democrat Sen. Gary Peters holds his seat — but it’s not guaranteed. Peters is running against John James, an Iraq War veteran who is outraising him and getting tons of positive press in Michigan. Michigan boasts a lot of moderate Republicans, and it’s easy to imagine split tickets coming in even from folks who vote for Biden over Trump. Let’s assume Biden’s lead sticks and Democrats hold this seat. We’re still 54-46.

That moves us to Arizona (Martha McSally), North Carolina (Thom Tillis), Maine (Susan Collins) and Colorado (Cory Gardner). These are all Republican senators and all four are behind in the polls right now. These are the races Democrats have their eyes on. McSally is getting crushed, she’s a bad candidate and she’s running against a famous astronaut in a state that’s quickly turning blue. I see that as a Democrat pickup: 53-47.

Susan Collins has lost Trump supporters, never-Trump Republicans and Democrats alike. She’s also running against Sara Gideon, who the still-popular Barack Obama has thrown his support behind. Gideon is up about 3-5% in the polls, is the speaker of the Maine House of Representatives and is running against a woman who draws ire like few other politicians. The Lincoln Project and every liberal group in the country are pouring it on Collins, and Trump has made it impossible for her to campaign on a consistent message. I think Collins loses. That’s 52-48.

Then we’re onto North Carolina and Colorado. Thom Tillis is underwater in North Carolina and the state appears to be leaning blue. There’s a huge college population that should turnout or vote by absentee ballot, but Biden’s lead gets slimmer by the day. This race is tight at the presidential level, even if Tillis is unpopular. I think it’s basically a coin toss, but for the purposes of this exercise let’s say Tillis loses: that’s 51-49.

That leaves Colorado. Polls show former Gov. John Hickenlooper ahead of Sen. Cory Gardner in this race. And Colorado has gone from swing-state to blue-leaning in the last six years. That’s the good news for Democrats. But Gardner has a carefully crafted image as someone who works across the aisle and gets stuff done. He’s bucked Trump when he’s needed to but maintained a good enough standing with the White House not to be singled out by the president, which is rare.

The conventional wisdom says this seat is one of the Democrats’ best opportunities for a pick-up. Some even think it’s the most likely. This is a pure gut feeling on my part, but I see Gardner hanging on (Note: my research assistant Seth, who specializes in elections, said “I think you’re wrong about Colorado”). Hickenlooper had some minor scandals (ethics and spending violations) and is a pretty boring candidate despite his popularity as governor. Gardner has been effective as a senator across the aisle and though he isn’t beloved, he also isn’t hated. That’s powerful in today’s politics — I think it’s a close Republican hold. 51-49.

That leaves four other races to look at in three states: Iowa, Montana and both Senate seats in Georgia. Democrats would need to win at least one of those, and the White House, to force a tie and take control of the Senate. That’s assuming they hold Michigan. They need to win two of those four races outright to take control. Republican Joni Ernst has trailed in a few polls in Iowa and the aforementioned 50,000 new re-enfranchised voters there could make a huge difference. I’d keep an eye on that, but this race is super tight.

Democrats also successfully recruited former Montana Gov. Steve Bullock to run against Republican Sen. Steve Daines. That’s big for the party, and Bullock was elected governor as a Democrat in 2016 even when Trump won the state there easily.

In Georgia, Sen. David Perdue is running against Jon Ossoff, who seems to have a focused campaign but hasn’t led in any polls. Sen. Kelly Loeffler has been a scandal machine and she never actually won an election (she was appointed). An interesting note here: Loeffler is running in a special election with more than one candidate. That means if nobody gets 50%, there could be a runoff in January. In other words: there’s a feasible scenario where Biden wins but Republicans are leading the Senate count 50-49 after November. If this race is unsettled, we may not know who has control until after inauguration day.

Regardless, I think these two Georgia races are going to stay with Republicans — meaning Democrats need an Iowa or Montana pick-up to force the tie.

As you’ll see: this is going to be a close battle. It’s possible Democrats sweep all the states mentioned above in a commanding victory, but I don’t think that’s likely. Even with Biden’s strong lead in the polls, it’s not going to be easy to win the Senate, due mostly to which senators are up for re-election. And as I mentioned on Friday, while the 2022 Senate cycle looks good for Democrats, it gets a lot worse for them in 2024.

A story that matters.

U.S. colleges attempting to go forward with on-campus classes are laying out the ground rules: no keggers, no trips off-campus and no guests on campus. “Administrators warn that failure to wear masks, practice social distancing and avoid mass gatherings could bring serious consequences, including getting booted from school,” ABC News reports. Plenty of critics are wondering if it’s reasonable or realistic to expect college kids to stay on campus, avoid big parties and not have any visitors. At Tulane, the Dean of Students sent out this message to students:


Students may be more compliant than you’d think, though. One College Reactions/Axios poll found that 79% of college students said they’d be fine not partying as long as it meant being able to go back to campus.


  • 26%. The percentage of Americans who think the election should definitely or probably be postponed.
  • 68%. The percentage of Americans who think the election should definitely or probably not be postponed.
  • 5.1. The magnitude of the earthquake that hit North Carolina on Sunday morning.
  • 6%. Biden’s lead over Trump in Wisconsin among likely voters.
  • 6%. Biden’s lead over Trump in Pennsylvania among likely voters.
  • 49%. The percentage of likely voters with a favorable opinion of Democrats in Congress.
  • 44%. The percentage of likely voters with a favorable opinion of Republicans in Congress.
  • 73%. The percentage of U.S. adults who say they watch T.V. or movies to help cope with the coronavirus outbreak.
  • 43%. The percentage of U.S. adults who say they pray to help cope with the coronavirus outbreak.
  • 34%. The percentage of U.S. adults who say they exercise daily to help cope with the coronavirus outbreak.

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Have a nice day.

More than a million people in the United Kingdom have quit smoking since the coronavirus pandemic began, according to a new study from the nonprofit Action on Smoking and Health. 41% said the decision was a direct response to the health concerns over people’s lungs and coronavirus. "I don't want to be one of those people in a ward with an oxygen mask over my face struggling to tell my loved ones what I'm feeling," one recent quitter told Business Insider.

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