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Today’s read: 8 minutes.
I celebrate my birthday by experimenting with a new format, responding to some reader feedback and answering a question about Barack Obama. In honor of this special day, here’s me as a young lad (frisbees in hand) with my brothers (background), throwing to my dad (holding the camera) and the best dog that ever lived (Cleo) on the shores of Cape Cod in the early 90s.
It’s my birthday.
I’m joining the quarantine birthday crowd today. It’s been a big, memorable year: I got engaged, I launched Tangle, my mom whooped cancer’s ass (again), we’re living in the midst of an unprecedented crisis and I got a betta fish named Arthur who I’ve kept alive for almost a year.
For my birthday, instead of a standard edition of Tangle, I am going to freestyle a bit with a recap of what’s happened in the last 24 hours. I tested this format with paying subscribers last Friday, and a lot of people seemed to like it — so I’m going to give it a shot occasionally when there is more than one big story to cover.
In lieu of presents for this special day, I’m accepting gifts in the form of you sharing Tangle with your friends, family and colleagues. You can forward this email to them or click the button below to share Tangle on Twitter. If you have any fun ideas about how to celebrate a birthday in lockdown (besides Pina Coladas at noon and some time outside), I’m all ears — you can reach me anytime by replying to this email.
In the last 24 hours, I’ve received about a dozen emails from readers — mostly with left-leaning politics — who believe that I’ve been mishandling the story around General Michael Flynn. The gist of their criticisms has been that I’m equivocating conspiracy theories being elevated by the right to legitimate journalism being elevated by the left. I’ve also received some notes from right-leaning readers who think I am being too easy on President Obama and the left. I want to address those criticisms briefly.
First, as I wrote yesterday, I think the “Obamagate” narrative “is riddled with baseless claims and overblown conspiracies.” Despite the president’s tweets, Obama has not been accused of any specific crime by any legitimate source. Even conservative writers who are declaring that “Obamagate is not a conspiracy” are careful to note that “None of this means that Obama committed some specific crime; he almost assuredly did not.” Trump himself was unable to name the crime he’s accusing Obama of. What I’ve tried to do while covering this story is to elevate legitimate issues being raised by the right about the way our intelligence apparatus spies on Americans, how Flynn was treated and how our federal court system works, while also parsing out nonsense from what is based-in-fact. There are compelling arguments being made on the right about things the Obama administration did that I think are worth covering in Tangle. Full stop.
Second, I want to remind my readers on the left that while this story may be easy to dismiss as a conspiracy theory, it’s the leading story on the nation’s most-watched network, it’s dominating the Wall Street Journal opinion pages, Republican senators are tweeting about it and it’s on the homepage of basically every conservative news website in America. The last thing I want to do is waste time on conspiracy theories, but the promise of Tangle is that I’m going to bring competing views under one roof and elevate the best arguments from both sides. I’m trying to do that, and will continue to do that, by sussing out the noise from reality. Is Trump using this moment to distract from his COVID-19 response? Probably! Does that mean the story should be ignored? No.
Finally, regarding this story specifically: the Flynn case is extremely complex. There are historical precedents of Justice Department standards being challenged, there’s the question of the Obama administration’s spying powers, there are Flynn’s crimes and his shady history, there is the 2016 Russia investigation, there’s FBI misconduct, there’s Flynn not registering as a foreign agent, there’s a drip-drip-drip of meeting notes and Obama’s involvement and all these various, nuanced, long-unfolding stories. Some of these disjointed accounts are being threaded together by the right to create a narrative that’s far more criminal sounding than they are. Some of these are important stories being dismissed by the left because they make people on “their team” look bad.
I’m going to use my best judgment, and try to write with nuance, in order to call those moments as I see them. And I’ll always continue to take your feedback to heart and share it with my readers. If you write in addressing something I wrote, specifically, that you feel was an instance of me elevating a conspiracy theory — I’m happy to address it. If I can’t find a good answer to your criticism, or believe that I mishandled it, I hope (by now!) you know I’ll share that criticism publicly and make a mea culpa. Thank you, as always, to all the people who write in and take the time and care to address this stuff. That’s what it is all about.
Yesterday, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) released a list of Obama administration officials who submitted requests to “unmask'' the identity of former national security advisor Michael Flynn. Unmasking is a common practice in intelligence gathering where the identity of someone who is inadvertently monitored during our intelligence operations is revealed. In this case, Flynn was overheard because he was speaking to a Russian ambassador, who we were spying on. His “unmasking” and the group of people who knew his identity are a central part of the “Obamagate” narrative — that unmasking requests were targeting Trump campaign officials. But, again, this practice is common. In fact, the number of unmasking requests has actually been much higher under the Trump administration than the Obama administration. I thought Marshall Cohen and Jeremy Herb hit the nail on the head in a CNN piece: “The President is blending real findings of FBI misconduct with self-serving theories and cherry-picked information to weave together a much deeper and more sinister story.”
Speaking of Flynn, the federal judge in his case has now called in a former prosecutor to oppose the Justice Department’s effort to drop the case and explore a perjury charge of Flynn (for lying to the court by repeatedly changing his story). It’s another wild twist and turn in the case, and lends credence to the left’s claims that the Justice Department was acting in a political manner by dropping the charges. The Justice Department’s decision to drop charges against someone who had pleaded guilty to a federal crime was unprecedented, and Judge Sullivan has responded with an unprecedented move of his own, a Duke professor told The New York Times. Then the Wall Street Journal editorial board decried the move, asking rhetorically, “If the prosecution and defense both want to drop a case, can a federal judge refuse and sentence the defendant anyway?”
Flynn isn’t the only one who might be in front of a federal judge soon, either. In perhaps the most shocking and dumbfounding news of the day, Sen. Richard Burr’s home was reportedly searched last night, and his cell phone was taken by FBI agents as a part of the Justice Department’s investigation into his controversial stock trades that Tangle covered in March. Burr, a Republican, is the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. He sold off between $582,029 and $1.56 million in stock right before the market crashed, and plenty of people are asking if he used official intelligence briefings to inform his decisions. Lawmakers are barred from using non-public information for trades, and Burr was publicly downplaying the threat of COVID-19. Now, he just had to turn his cell phone over to the FBI. I’m struggling to put into words how bonkers that is — the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee handing his phone over to the FBI — but I would not want to be Sen. Kelly Loeffler right now.
While we’re on the intelligence committee, there was some other big news there, too: the Senate narrowly blocked an amendment to FISA laws that would have stopped law enforcement from collecting information on internet usage without a warrant. In other words: the FBI can still go through things like your search history without a warrant. Democrats proposed an amendment to the surveillance laws to prevent that, but 10 Democrats joined Republicans in defeating the amendment. The amendment came up just one vote shy of passing (59-37). Sen. Bernie Sanders and two Republicans missed the vote.
In Wisconsin, the Supreme Court just made headlines by siding with Republican legislators and striking down Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’s decision to extend stay-at-home orders. The 4-3 decision “limits Evers’s ability to make statewide rules during emergencies such as a global pandemic, instead requiring him to work with the state legislature on how the state should handle the outbreak,” The Washington Post reported. The left condemned the decision, saying Wisconsin was successfully beating back COVID-19 and now will descend into chaos. The right says Evers has emergency powers, but shouldn’t be able to act unilaterally month after month. The decision meant bars in Wisconsin could open immediately. And they did. And people came out:
In another win for Republicans, Mike Garcia won the competitive special election to replace a Democrat in California’s 25th Congressional District. It was a seat Democrats won in the 2018 special election, and it’s the first time Republicans have flipped a seat in California in 22 years. The seat was vacated by Katie Hill, the Democrat who won it in 2018 after a sex scandal forced her resignation. Democrats say the election is meaningless, given that it happened in an off-year and during a global pandemic, and many expect to win the seat back in the upcoming November election — when Garcia will have to run against Democratic state Assemblywoman Christy Smith for the second time.
Los Angeles County has clarified news reports from yesterday that it would keep its stay-at-home orders in place for three more months. LA Mayor Eric Garcetti says the three-month extension does not mean what some people think it means. “That does not mean the order stays in place exactly as it is today,” he said. He seemed to indicate that things like face coverings and physical distance will remain through July, but the county was going to take baby steps to allow non-essential businesses to reopen with those guidelines in effect.
Related to the pandemic, Axios’s Editor in Chief Nicholas Johnston made some waves this morning with a new piece titled “The pandemic broke America.” Johnston argues that COVID-19 has exposed growing problems we’ve seen over decades: income inequality, misinformation, partisanship, lack of trust in our institutions and the urban-rural divide in the U.S. “The bottom line,” he writes, is that “an existential threat — like war or natural disaster — usually brings people together to set a course of action in response. Somehow, we've let this one drive us apart.”
Your questions, answered.
Reminder: reader questions is one of my favorite parts of Tangle. If you have something you want to see in the newsletter, simply reply to this email and write in. I’ll try to get to it as soon as I can.
Q: I've been wondering about this quote from last week, “I liked Obama when he was president and grew to look down on much of what he did now that he’s left office.” I'm glad you expanded on this in this newsletter with whistleblowers, and I'm curious what other things are you referring to?
— Nicole, Somerville, MA
Tangle: At the risk of further alienating some of the folks who have written into Tangle in the last few days, I felt like this was a worthwhile question to answer given all the news recently.
For starters, I just want to say that I view the Obama presidency with a range of emotions. Obviously, his election was a historic leap forward for our country. I think he served the office with a lot of dignity and respect, and I think he applied deep thought and analysis to the decisions he made. Many things about Obama’s presidency, from the advancement of LGBT rights to avoiding a depression to the approval ratings of Obamacare, lend favorably to how he will be viewed in the annals of history. There are dozens of other things I could say about what he did well, but that’s not what this question is about.
The first and most obvious things that come to mind are the drone wars. Obama campaigned in 2008 on opposition to the Iraq War and spoke eloquently about the cost of violence overseas, most notably about how the continued bombing of Middle Eastern countries would produce a whole new generation of extremists. Then he bombed seven countries throughout his presidency: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria and Yemen. Many of those bombs were delivered via drones, which killed hundreds if not thousands of civilians. He also continued to sell billions of dollars of military supplies to Saudi Arabia, which has returned the favor by using those weapons to carry out the greatest humanitarian crisis of this decade. All of this has helped contribute to the spread of extremism, the deaths of innocent civilians, and the likelihood that we will be locked into the “war on terrorism” for generations to come.
Second is the domestic spying. I don’t mean the kind that Michael Flynn and Trump are talking about — though obviously I think those issues deserve discussion — but I mean the instances of surveillance that occurred throughout his administration. The Director of National Intelligence James Clapper lied to the Senate about the NSA spying on Americans. The CIA, being led by John Brennan, spied on the Senate. Obama’s Justice Department seized two months of phone records from editors at The Associated Press, a move the AP called “serious interference with A.P.’s constitutional rights to gather and report the news.” All of these things were scandalous infringements on the rights of Americans that happened on his watch or at his direction.
Third is his legacy on immigration, which made nobody happy. After two terms in office, there was no legitimate immigration reform, which was a crucial promise of his campaign. Yes, Republicans did everything they could to stop him. Yes, Republicans turned down reasonable proposals they then accepted under Trump. Yes, Obama had an economic crisis to handle. But there were plenty of missteps. DACA was an executive order I supported (I have mentioned it before, but I tend to be pretty “left” on immigration issues), but it’s one of the few things he can hang his hat on. And it can be undone by Trump at any moment (and he’s trying to). Some top immigration rights activists referred to Obama as “the Deporter-in-Chief,” a claim that has some nuance and is worth exploring. But the gist of it is that Obama’s immigration plans were never enacted, his immigration policies were often as draconian as his predecessors’, and his immigration legacy ended up being viewed negatively by both sides.
For me, those three things are the big ones. But there are others that I’ll just touch on. Obama actually expanded gun rights, he didn’t limit them. I’m often more conservative than many of my liberal friends on gun rights, but I did think there were some restrictions that we needed that never came during his term. The idea Obama was “taking people’s guns” is a total distortion; gun rights expanded under his term. He also used the kid gloves on the banks that were responsible for the 2008 recession. He brought in a team that resembled the Clinton administration after defeating Hillary in 2008, and his policies ended up reflecting that. Hate it or love it, many liberal observers believe Obama’s second term is the reason we got Trump — the anger and left-behind feeling so many who never recovered from the crisis felt.
More will be written about it, but one adjective that I think aptly defines Obama’s legacy is fragile. How his greatest achievements stand up to the test of time and the administrations that come after him will reflect largely on how well he did as president. If his greatest achievements are easily undone by the courts or by Trump, can they really be cast as achievements? It’s a question that’s explored in Princeton historian Julian Zelizer’s new book, which I’ve been reading in bits and pieces. At the very least, I think it’s fair to say that Obama’s politics were a disaster for the party, which has lost thousands of seats in state legislatures, in Congress and in governor’s mansions across the U.S. — and of course the 2016 election, which has led to a huge swing to a conservative federal court at the lowest and highest levels. If you’re a Democrat who supports liberal policies, those results alone are worth some reflection.
2.98 million. The number of new jobless claims that were filed over the last week in the United States.
36.5 million. The total number of jobless claims filed in the United States over the last two months.
20%. The percentage of Americans who approve of the way Congress is doing its job, according to a new Economist poll.
55%. The percentage of Republicans who think the country is on the right track, according to a new Economist poll.
17%. The percentage of students who are uncertain about their plans to re-enroll in college this fall.
27 million. The estimated number of Americans who lost their employer-provided health insurance coverage in the last two months.
80%. The rough estimate of those Americans who have other options for insurance, like Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program.
I’m taking tomorrow off for my birthday, so you won't hear from me again until Monday.
I released a poll on Tuesday. If haven’t taken it yet, please do. You can take it here.
Thank you, everyone, who already took the poll. There are some awesome comments in there, I’ve read most of them, and if you left your email I plan to respond to you individually over the next week or two.
A reader wrote in to let me know that they had been missing the “Have a nice day” section of Tangle at the end of the newsletter. Every edition ends with good news, be sure to scroll to the end to see it…
Have a nice day.
A 113-year-old woman in Spain who survived the Spanish flu of 1918 has just beaten coronavirus. Maria Branyas is believed to be the oldest person in Spain and she had been fighting off COVID-19 for several weeks. Born in Mexico in 1907, Branyas is the oldest person to survive coronavirus, according to the Gerontology Research Group. She has 11 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren. Click.