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Today’s read: 15 minutes.
Donald Trump’s second impeachment. Plus, a question about the Trump holdovers Biden fired, and some updates on the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 package.
Replying to yesterday’s piece on the $1.9 trillion stimulus bill, Philip from Washington, D.C. said “Don't force yourself into a binary ‘yes/no’ position on something that doesn't demand it. ‘Are you in favor of the $1.9 trillion bill that doesn't even exist yet?’ You pretty much force yourself to say yes here. But why? What's the payoff? ‘Wait and see, support what's good and oppose what is inappropriate’ is a much superior general stance on this kind of fast-moving, complicated legislation.”
I typically let reader feedback stand on its own, but I want to reply to this: I agree. I think this is a really constructive, helpful piece of pushback, and I also think that it was probably a bit hasty of me to say I’d vote for the $1.9 trillion bill that has not even been drafted. Maybe it would have been better to articulate my position like this: I find the left’s argument that the risk of doing too little more convincing than the right’s argument that we may do too much, and that’s a general frame of mind I’m entering the debate over the rescue plan with. There will, of course, be a lot more to say about this as the actual legislation comes out.
Texas Rep. Ron Wright died after contracting COVID-19 yesterday. Wright was being treated for lung cancer and was diagnosed with coronavirus last month. The 67-year-old is the first member of Congress to die after contracting the virus. (CBS News)
Alabama Republican Senator Richard Shelby announced he was retiring yesterday. Shelby’s term ends in 2022, and the former Democrat has served in Congress for 42 years. (Fox News)
Tesla bought $1.5 billion of the cryptocurrency bitcoin yesterday, sending the price skyrocketing as it announced it would begin accepting cryptocurrency as payment for its products. (Axios)
The Congressional Budget Office released a report on Democrats’ $15 minimum wage proposal, estimating that on average, the bill would lift 900,000 people out of poverty, cost 1.4 million jobs by 2025, and increase wages for approximately 27 million workers. It also determined that such an increase would have a substantial impact on the federal budget, meaning it would qualify the measure to be passed under budget reconciliation, with no Republican support. (CBO report)
The World Health Organization team investigating the origins of coronavirus said it’s “extremely unlikely” the virus leaked from a Chinese lab, instead theorizing that it jumped to humans from another species. (Associated Press)
What D.C. is talking about.
Donald Trump. Remember him? The former president’s second impeachment trial will begin today, with debates starting at 12 p.m. EST. Trump was charged by the House of Representatives with incitement of insurrection for his alleged role in inciting a mob to storm the Capitol building in Washington D.C. on the day his electoral college defeat was set to be certified. It is the first time a president has ever been impeached twice, and the first time an ex-president has ever been tried in an impeachment.
Yesterday, members of Congress and the president’s legal team reached a bipartisan agreement on how to move forward, likely setting up a speedy trial in the Senate. Each side gets just 16 hours to lay out its case over several days, meaning the entire affair could be over by next week — if not sooner. It is still unclear if witnesses will be called (there could be a vote on that later this week), and if oral arguments in the case could be concluded by Friday. That would leave time for senators to ask questions before a final vote on whether to convict Trump.
If Trump is convicted, the Senate would then have a second vote on whether to bar him from ever being able to run for office again — one requiring only a simple majority to pass. However, no president has ever been convicted in an impeachment trial, and Trump looks unlikely to be the first. Several Senate aides told The Washington Post they believe Trump will be acquitted by Monday.
Today, most of the debate will center around the question of whether it’s even constitutional to try a former president in an impeachment trial. Some Republican senators have argued that whether or not Trump is guilty of incitement, the Constitution does not allow a former president to stand trial. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) forced a vote on this argument two weeks ago, and all but five Senate Republicans voted with him, signaling that a conviction for Trump — which would require two-thirds majority and 17 Republican votes — is all but out of the question.
Trump’s lawyers have also embraced this argument, making it the centerpiece of their defense in a brief they filed on Monday. No former president has ever been impeached and other legal experts have argued that Congress cannot “judge” a private citizen. However, the defense was complicated after a top Republican lawyer (and close ally of Senate Republicans) Charles J. Cooper wrote an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal dismissing this idea, attacking it as fundamentally illogical, increasing pressure on Republicans while dealing a blow to Trump’s main defense.
As the trial kicks off, we’ll take a look at what people on the right and left are saying, and then my take.
What the left is saying.
The left wants Trump impeached, despite knowing Republicans are unlikely to convict him. Many believe that impeachment should be just the beginning.
In The Washington Post, Colbert I. King re-hashed the timeline of events, making the case that it was Trump’s words that directly incited the mob.
“Trump brought the calamity on Congress,” King wrote. “Because of him, a mob invaded the Senate chamber, rifled through senators’ desks, took papers, broke and destroyed, and lounged with obvious contempt in the Senate president’s chair.
“The question of the hour — the only question — is whether Republicans in the upper chamber, sitting as jurors, have the integrity, the respect for the Constitution and the law, as well as the guts to stand up on behalf of their own body against the narcissistic and amoral Donald Trump,” he said. “Any senator who ducks, hedges and dances around the truth of Trump’s lawlessness and shameful misconduct is unworthy of the honor bestowed upon them by American voters.”
In The New Republic, Matt Ford argued that Trump’s guilt is about more than just what happened on January 6th — and that his lawyers are trying to avoid talking about everything leading up to it.
“Suppose that someone broke into your house and ripped up your near mint copy of Action Comics #1,” he wrote. “You’re upset not only because it contained the first appearance of Superman, but also because it would fetch more than $3.2 million on the market. You suspect that I’m responsible for what happened—maybe I broke in myself, or maybe I hired someone to do it for me. How would you prove such a case to the authorities? Would you tell those authorities about how you outbid me for the rare 1939 comic book by more than a million dollars when it was last auctioned off? That doesn’t prove much by itself, of course.
“But what if I had spent the last three months complaining that you had actually stolen the comic book from me through some sort of fictitious scheme with the auction house?” he wrote. “Maybe I repeatedly warned other Superman fans that the treasured artifact didn’t belong to you, that it wasn’t safe in your hands, that something had to be done. Maybe I was in town on the day it was stolen from your house, speaking at a nearby park, telling an assortment of fellow nerds who had gathered there where you lived. Suppose that I denounced your roommate for not giving me the comic book himself and declared that we should march there together. Maybe things then got a little out of hand.
“All of what I just described—my actions and behavior, my mood and state of mind, my rhetoric and my calls to action—would matter when accusing me of wrongdoing,” he concluded. “Sure, I never explicitly said that anyone should hurt you or break into your home. Nor did I tell anyone to tear apart a priceless piece of superhero history. But I certainly bear moral responsibility for what happened. And while your account might not put me in prison, it should hopefully be more than enough to ban me from the San Diego Comic-Con for life.”
In The Nation, Elie Mystal said impeaching Trump isn’t enough: he wants him in jail. Mystal argued that impeachment “feels too small: like getting the guy who set a house on fire to buy the victims a new hose.”
“Bearing stun guns and actual guns, pocket knives and brass knuckles, and enough flags to lay claim to a quadrant of the moon, insurrectionists pushed past the under-prepared Capitol Police and sacked the building,” Mystal wrote. “Some merely looted and destroyed property, while others set out, again at Trump’s prodding, to find Vice President Mike Pence and other members of Congress and somehow ‘convince’ them to declare Trump the winner of an election he lost. Some people erected a gallows and fitted it with a rope—presumably to hang elected officials they captured. Five people died, including a Capitol Police officer who was beaten to death with a fire extinguisher… Trump should be charged with incitement of criminal acts, at the very least. If it can be proven that he stood down the National Guard, he should be charged with sedition as well.”
What the right is saying.
The right mostly views the impeachment trial as a political hit job, with views ranging from it being a sham, to insurrection being an absurd charge. However, some Republicans — both in Congress and outside it — do believe Trump should be convicted.
The Wall Street Journal editorial board said it would not criticize any Republican who viewed Trump’s actions as impeachable offenses, but argued the “single and sloppy” accusation of “incitement of an insurrection” was a “stretch, not least because Mr. Trump called on the marchers to behave ‘peacefully.’
“The House managers mention this only in passing in their trial brief,” the board wrote. “It is doubtful that Mr. Trump’s Jan. 6 remarks would qualify as incitement under the criminal code. The assault on the Capitol was a riot, and a violent one, but it wasn’t an ‘insurrection.’ It wasn’t a coup… Once the mob was dispersed, the Members returned to the House chamber to count the votes. There was never any chance that Joe Biden would not become President on Jan. 20, whatever the fantasies of Mr. Trump and his courtiers.
“So why hold this trial?” the board asked. “The answer is transparently political. Hatred for Donald Trump is the Democratic Party’s single most unifying principle. Democrats have prospered politically since Mr. Trump was elected, and they’d like to keep him as a foil for as long as they can.”
In The Federalist, David Marcus called the impeachment a “disgraceful sham.”
“There is little point in litigating whether Donald Trump ‘incited’ crazy horn hat man and alt-right lunatics like Baked Alaska to storm the Capitol,” Marcus wrote. “He didn’t. Given politicians’ common use of ‘fight’ metaphors and language and the information coming out showing that the riot was pre-planned and began while Trump was speaking, it’s absurd to suggest he did. By that standard, Democrats should be paying reparations to the business owners whose stores were looted on their commands for racial justice. So let’s just stop with all that.
“You see, the most important thing right now, the greatest issue facing the nation, is impeaching a guy who isn’t even freaking president anymore,” he said. “Everyone involved in this colossal waste of time and money is fully aware it is futile. Trump will not be convicted… What are we even doing? We are impeaching a president who just lost reelection. Like, that wasn’t enough? He lost. Delaware Joe is ensconced in the White House killing jobs and inviting a border crisis. The good people won. The scourge of Trump is over, but they just can’t quit him. It’s almost as though the Democrats and their sycophantic allies in the media don’t know what to do if they can’t keep tap, tap, Tappering away at the bad orange man.”
In The Washington Post, Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) articulated the pro-impeachment position on the right (Kinzinger and nine other Republicans voted to impeach Trump in the House).
“Virtually all my colleagues on the right side of the aisle took the opposite path,” he wrote. “Most felt it was a waste of time — political theater that distracted from bigger issues. The overwhelming majority of Senate Republicans appear to feel the same way about conviction. But this isn’t a waste of time. It’s a matter of accountability. If the GOP doesn’t take a stand, the chaos of the past few months, and the past four years, could quickly return. The future of our party and our country depends on confronting what happened — so it doesn’t happen again.
“Since my vote to impeach Trump, I’ve heard from tens of thousands of my constituents,” he added. “Their reaction has been overwhelmingly supportive. Republicans of all backgrounds and outlooks have told me they appreciate my efforts to return the GOP to a foundation of principle, not personality. I’ve even heard from many Democrats. They don’t agree with me on a lot of issues, but they want the Republican Party to be healthy and competitive.”
Look, by now most of you know how I feel about January 6th. I wrote then, and believe now, that the most defining part of Trump’s legacy will be that he refused to concede, refused to acknowledge he lost, and consequently ended our 240 year streak of peaceful transfers of power. Nothing — no legislative accomplishments or reshaping of the political world — will be remembered more than how his presidency ended.
It’s also not a secret how I feel about impeachment, either. I’m on record saying that it’s “obvious” Trump committed impeachable offenses in the two months after he lost. Beyond just his role in the January 6th riots, or denying his election defeat, he literally called state election officials and tried to pressure them into overturning the results of their elections. As far as I know, there is zero precedent for such egregious behavior, and it’s all on tape.
A month ago, when Trump was impeached, the talking points from Senate Republicans were everything from “another impeachment trial would further divide the country,” to that he did not “incite” anything because he uttered the word “peacefully” a single time, to if Trump incited a riot then Democrats were guilty of inciting Black Lives Matter protesters, or that there was no time or need to impeach a president who was leaving office anyway.
I never found those arguments convincing. Some argued that the “timeline” of events of January 6th disproved the “media myth” that rioters came from Trump’s rally, though subsequent FBI investigations where rioters said they were acting on Trump’s orders and cell phone location data of people moving from the rally to the Capitol building have since undercut that line of defense, too.
The defense Trump’s lawyers are mounting is far more compelling and, frankly, fascinating. Most Americans left of center loathe Trump too much to admit it, but the question of whether he can be impeached as a former president is a delicious piece of legal work, and after reading the Trump lawyers’ brief on the matter I found it a lot more persuading than I expected, though Charles Cooper’s response peels back its contradictory layers.
There will also be lots of pointing at Democrats. As Politico noted, the defense team will almost certainly point to “Democrats objecting to the results of elections, including Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA.) in 2016 objecting to certifying Trump’s electoral votes in Alabama; Congressional Black Caucus members protesting the legitimacy of the 2001 presidential election (which Al Gore rebuffed); Stacey Abrams’ refusal to concede in Georgia’s 2018 gubernatorial race; and this tweet from Speaker Nancy Pelosi.”
Oh, and don’t forget “Democrats such as Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) and Sen. CoryBooker (D-NJ) encouraging aggressive political tactics against Trump supporters.”
All this taken into account, I have to admit something else: now that we’re here, I really don’t want to go this route. We’re only three weeks into the Biden administration and it feels like we’re just getting to the meat of this stuff, just watching his first major piece of legislation come up, just moving out from under the cloud of the last four years, just starting to have debates about immigration and health care and policy issues that are separate from the nonstop reality TV show that was “Trump” and now… here we are again. Not just locked in for another week of Trump, but another week of non-stop blabbering from the talking heads and Democratic politicians about the moral high ground they occupy, and the endless whining of Republicans and Donald Trump and his enablers about how he’s a victim.
And honestly, that feeling is making me a lot more sympathetic to the arguments of Trump’s supporters like David Marcus. Now that my own anger toward the former president has had time to settle, I wonder: “What are we doing here? What is this going to accomplish?” Hate it or love it (and I hate it!) the outcome of this is preordained. Republican senators are not going to convict Trump. We’re just signing ourselves up for another week and a half of nonstop Trump cable news coverage, Trump homepages, Trump this and Trump that and everyone being divided along the lines of how they feel about this one singular issue regarding Trump. There’s part of me that has somehow come full circle to the position my detractors had just a few weeks ago.
I just don’t want to go down this road.
Of course, if we’re constructing our “blame pyramid” for why we are here, Trump is at the top. Nothing will change that. If I had the option to fast forward the next week and avoid this spectacle at all costs, I think I would. If we had a functioning Senate, Trump may be convicted. If we had a normal political discourse, we’d be able to concede this is the appropriate response to Trump’s actions. We don’t appear to have either, at the moment, and the best we can hope for is that the next week doesn’t worsen the divide.
Your questions, answered.
Q: I read a bit today about Biden firing members of the CFPB on his first day in office. On WSJ, they are saying this breaks with precedent, may be a violation of the separation of powers, and likely to prompt a Supreme Court case if Peter Robb or Kathy Kraninger chooses to sue… Could you explain why Biden did this? What does the CFPB do and what does Biden get from firing them? Is it hypocritical of him to do this, especially after touring a message of unity in his inauguration?
— Kenny, Cambridge, MA
Tangle: The CFPB is the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and it was created in 2010, partly in response to the financial crisis. It is considered Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s brainchild and one of the most consequential things she’s done in office. Since it was created, the CFPB has been divisive. It’s a classic battle: Democrats tend to support the CFPB for taking on corruption in the financial industry to protect consumers while Republicans view it as having too much power to regulate too large a slice of the economy.
Since its inception, the CFPB has definitely done some good. It’s returned billions of dollars to victims of predatory lenders and fraud. In 2016, a University of Utah study found that it had returned $11 billion to consumers who were “cheated” by financial institutions. When Trump became president, he made Kathleen Kraninger the head of the CFPB. It’s also levied some pretty serious penalties without appropriate due process, which has given opponents good reason to believe it has too much power.
Kraninger reoriented the agency to focus on things like consumer education, so they could avoid being scammed in the first place, rather than centering on enforcement. This was, predictably, an approach supported by many Republicans and panned by many Democrats. Supporters of the original CFPB considered it toothless under the Trump administration, and most neutral experts seemed to agree. Whether that is a good or bad thing mostly depends on what role you view the government should have in regulating the financial industry.
When Biden took over, he removed Kraninger. I’m not sure I’d call it “unprecedented,” but it certainly wasn’t received particularly well. First, the Supreme Court recently ruled on a case involving the CFPB and determined that the director had too much power — and thus that a president could actually remove the director. So, it was actually Trump’s Supreme Court nominees who gave Biden the power to do what he did — inspiring the cheeky Wall Street Journal headline Biden Learns to Love Brett Kavanaugh.
All in all, it felt to me as if Kraninger was so clearly a Trump loyalist holding an ideological position that ran so diametrically opposed to the CFPB’s core mission that Biden had little choice. Given the recent Supreme Court ruling, I think Biden is well within the legal bounds to do what he did.
The Peter Robb firing, though, is a bit different.
Robb was the general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board, a Senate-confirmed, four-year appointment to and an independent agency (Robb has claimed he was independent, which is not quite true — the board is, but he served as general counsel). No NLRB general counsel had ever been fired, and Biden essentially told him to resign with some dignity or get the ax. There was no stated cause for the firing, so Robb refused, and Biden gave him the ax as promised. He had 10 months left in his term.
Now, there’s some irony here: Robb is notoriously anti-union, and he was head of the National Labor Relations Board. Biden was under tremendous pressure to fire him. The almost perfect irony, of course, is that Robb had no recourse to stop the firing because he was not a member of a union and was not protected explicitly by law from being fired without just cause, the precise kind of thing unions often prevent. The liberal view here is that Robb, a union buster, got a taste of his own medicine.
So, again, it kind of depends where you sit. I do not see any legal recourse for Robb that looks likely, and doubt any will be taken. There’s no doubt he, too, undermined the purpose of the NLRB and hobbled the board from the inside. He was tremendously powerful, and even though he only had 10 months left on his term he could have done quite a bit of damage to Biden’s agenda if he had stayed on and decided to. While conservatives say Biden broke precedent of letting NLRB appointees finish their terms (he did), liberals say Robb broke precedent by undermining the purpose of the very agency he was overseeing (he did).
In sum, though, and if you throw in the firing of Alice Stock, it’s not difficult at all to make the case that this undermines Biden’s message of unity. Remember: he didn’t give Robb or Stock any opportunities to play by his rules or adapt to the new administration, he sent them packing just minutes after taking the oath. I certainly get the argument that Robb left him with little choice, but it’s also tough to take the high road on unity and middle ground if you’re making unprecedented firings in the minutes after you take office, with no stated cause and no conversation.
The NLRB is probably better for the firings, as is the CFPB. We’ll see. But Biden’s pledge for unity takes a bit of a hit.
A story that matters.
Yesterday, the House of Representatives settled the income debate for direct payments — moving ahead with a stimulus package that would keep the existing income limits for Americans who have received stimulus checks. That means $1,400 checks will go out to Americans making up to $75,000 a year, rather than the $50,000 some moderate Democrats and Republicans wanted. Couples making $150,000 will qualify for direct payments, too. However, the bill does tighten the eligibility for anyone making over $75,000 — past stimulus checks have been phased out incrementally for incomes above that level. (Politico)
28%. The percentage of Americans who have resumed in-person gatherings outside the home, according to an Axios/Ipsos poll.
42%. The percentage of Republicans who have resumed in-person gatherings outside the home, according to an Axios/Ipsos poll.
10%. The percentage of Democrats who have resumed in-person gatherings outside the home, according to an Axios/Ipsos poll.
$1,144. The median weekly earnings of a union member, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
$958. The median weekly earnings of a non-union member, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
2.9%. The percentage of Americans who are now fully vaccinated for coronavirus.
9.7%. The percentage of Americans who have gotten at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine.
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Wanna go to space? Earlier this month, SpaceX announced it was sending civilians to the stars and raising money for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital. Billionaire Jared Isaacman is organizing the trip, which will be the first ever civilian mission of the Dragon spacecraft. Called Inspiration 4, the mission will send four private citizens from the Kennedy Space Center into orbit for a few days. To enter a chance to be on the trip, all you have to do is donate to St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital and then, presumably, spend a year training to be an astronaut. What could go wrong?