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 — then “my take.” You can read Tangle for free or subscribe for Friday editions, and you can reach me anytime by replying to this email. If someone sent you this email, they’re asking you to sign up. You can do that by clicking here.
Today’s read: 12 minutes.
The presidential transition. Plus, where do Republicans go from here?
Donald Trump and Barack Obama meet in 2016 after Trump won the election. Screenshot: ABC News.
Last week, in one of my “Have a nice day” sections, I wrote that the experimental Eli Lilly drug, which recently got FDA approval, “was part of the treatment that President Trump received.” In fact, Eli Lilly’s drug is one of the experimental drugs Trump has repeatedly touted, and is in the same family of the drugs President Trump received, but it was not actually part of his treatment.
This is the 19th Tangle correction in its 64-week existence and the first correction since October 26th. I track corrections in an effort to be transparent and plan to stop counting when the number becomes embarrassing.
The coronavirus is spreading across the U.S., and this time it is not concentrated in specific areas. New infections surpassed 177,224 on Friday, setting another all-time single day record. The number of people hospitalized with the virus hit 69,445 on Friday. North Dakota became the 35th U.S. state to require face coverings in public. (See “Have a nice day” for some good news on COVID-19).
Left-wing and right-wing activists clashed in the streets of Washington D.C. this weekend after counterprotesters arrived at a pro-Trump rally. At least one person was stabbed and 21 were arrested.
The Trump campaign abandoned a lawsuit contesting the vote count in Maricopa County, Arizona, on Friday and made significant revisions to allegations in Pennsylvania over the weekend. The campaign’s legal challenges continue to falter.
Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) canceled an indoor welcome dinner for new House Democrats after a public outcry over the party skirting coronavirus restrictions. House Republicans also canceled their scheduled welcome dinner for Sunday night, bowing to increasing public pressure.
President Trump is planning a last-minute crackdown on China in an effort to cement his legacy as a bulwark against the regime. The president hopes to make it “politically untenable for the Biden administration to change course,” Axios reports.
What D.C. is talking about.
The transition. It’s been nine days since President-elect Joe Biden was declared the winner of the 2020 election by media outlets across the country, a moment that has traditionally set off the beginning of the transition to a new White House. One key logistical element of that transition comes from the General Services Administration, a little-known government agency responsible for signing off on millions of dollars of funding to help a new White House get phones, office space and all the resources needed to enter the Oval Office smoothly. In the past, the GSA has acknowledged the winner of the presidential election within days of major news outlets calling a race.
But so far, the GSA — headed by an appointee of President Trump — has not issued the typical designation that would allow Biden’s team to “to view detailed classified information, send representatives to embed with government agencies and have the State Department facilitate calls with foreign leaders,” as The Wall Street Journal put it. The delay is also critical to allowing Biden to vet cabinet members, as the background check process is frozen without the GSA designation.
Biden’s new chief of staff Ronald Klain said he plans to increase the pressure on GSA to acknowledge the election results, and this weekend began alerting news outlets that the delay in certification could hinder the Biden administration’s ability to distribute a potential coronavirus vaccine.
President Trump has yet to concede the election, promising his supporters that the results will be “overturned” once his legal challenges play out. But so far, the president’s allegations have borne no fruit in court, and he’s only been successful in limiting the count of one small batch of mail-in votes in Pennsylvania where voters missed a deadline to confirm their identification. Those votes are not part of Biden’s current lead. The Trump campaign lost nearly two dozen other cases across the country. Over the weekend, President-elect Biden was declared the winner in both Arizona and Georgia, extended his lead in Pennsylvania and now has an electoral college lead of 306-232.
There appears to be a growing consensus, even among Senate Republicans who support the president’s legal fight, that the GSA should acknowledge Biden as the winner. The GSA does not make a president, but in the virtually certain event that Biden becomes the next president, it is an important part of jumpstarting a new administration’s entrance to the White House. Very few conservative pundits are still backing the GSA’s refusal to acknowledge that Biden has won, and Democrats are becoming increasingly angry about the delay.
What the right is saying.
The right remains split on the importance of this issue, though most seem to admit there is no harm in having the GSA hand the customary resources to Biden’s team. Most seem to want Biden to get the GSA designation to start receiving national security briefings and updates about the coronavirus vaccine rollout. Some argue that Biden doesn’t need the designation yet, but even if he were to receive it, that designation could easily be reversed if any of Trump’s legal battles succeed.
In The Wall Street Journal, Charles Lipson criticized Democrats but ultimately concluded there was no harm in allowing the procedural step for a transition to move forward.
“Mr. Trump and his supporters have every reason to ridicule the Democrats’ hypocrisy about the peaceful transition of power,” he wrote. “The Obama administration lied to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, spied on Mr. Trump’s candidacy and transition, and desperately tried to cover its tracks… Barack Obama’s administration launched a baseless crusade against Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, Mike Flynn, for making a perfectly legitimate phone call to Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. Holdover officials from the Obama administration did all they could to impede the new administration, including leaks of classified information about its actions.”
“It is an outrage that, four years later, we haven’t had a full accounting of this malfeasance… But the Democrats’ corruption of the last transition doesn’t justify the Republicans’ corrupting this one. With the country so angry, divided and suspicious, it is vital that the incumbent administration do everything it can to assist the potential winners in case they prevail, as seems likely.”
In The National Review, Jim Geraghty quoted The New York Times report on the GSA delay, which noted that “none of Trump’s actions to date violate the laws that control certification of election victory and the transfer of executive authority.”
“Biden and his team are moving ahead with his transition as best as they can, naming a chief of staff in Ron Klain and a lot of people to ‘agency review teams,’ and continuing to hold meetings that likely involve sorting through his options for cabinet posts,” Geraghty wrote. “Biden said Tuesday at a news conference in Wilmington, Del., that his team could manage without the GSA resources, and he said he wasn’t planning to take legal action to try to force the Trump administration to identify him as the winner of the election. If Biden doesn’t seem all that worried about the slow pace of the transition, it’s not clear why anyone else should be.”
The Washington Examiner editorial board was less forgiving to Trump and the GSA for the delay, writing that cooperating on the transition “would not harm Trump’s court battles in any way” but could harm the new administration’s ability to carry out basic actions of government that are good for the American people.
“This is not about who should have power; it is about making sure that the public is well served, no matter who is in charge,” the board wrote. “If Trump directs his team to cooperate in a smooth transition, then wins his court case, nothing will have been lost. If he doesn’t cooperate, though, and he loses in court, which seems likely, then he will be blamed for stubbornness and selfishness by those who suffer from the effects of a delayed or botched transition.”
What the left is saying.
The left is angry about Trump’s refusal to concede the election, and believes that the GSA delays will do serious harm to President-elect Biden’s ability to handle the coronavirus pandemic, distribute a vaccine, and that it’s already hampering his ability to get briefed on national security issues. Many are hoping the Biden administration takes legal action.
Former national security advisor Susan Rice, who has participated in three presidential transitions, wrote an op-ed in The New York Times saying that “what they shared was a recognition that our country’s national security is best served when both sides endeavor to have a responsible handoff of power.”
“Mr. Biden and his top national security team have not been provided the daily intelligence briefings to which they are entitled,” she wrote. “Mr. Biden’s team is not receiving classified information. The Biden-Harris agency review teams are constituted but have been denied access to every element of the executive branch. Vital exchanges of information and expertise that would help combat Covid-19 and jump-start the economy remain stalled... Without access to critical threat information, no incoming team can counter what it can’t see coming. If, today, the Trump administration is tracking potential or actual threats — for instance, Russian bounties on American soldiers, a planned terrorist attack on an embassy, a dangerously mutated coronavirus, or Iranian and North Korean provocations — but fails to share this information in a timely fashion with the Biden-Harris team, it could cost us dearly in terms of American lives.”
In The Washington Post, Greg Sargent wrote that “Biden’s team is being kept in the dark about the vaccine rollout” but his top advisors are still saying it’s not yet a big issue.
“The rub is basically this: The Biden team will need to be briefed on the problems that the current administration is running into as the rollout gets underway,” he said. “Some examples: The Biden team will want to know if the rollout is running into problems with distribution, including in difficult-to-reach communities. They will want to know which states are doing well, and which are not, with their preparedness… A great deal is at stake. Even the head of Trump’s Warp Speed program is now saying that he’d like to be able to brief the Biden team, and that the program’s success ‘is a matter of life and death for thousands of people.’”
Fareed Zakaria has also chimed in, pushing back on comparisons to Hillary Clinton or Democrats after Trump won in 2016.
“Hillary Clinton conceded to Trump the night of the election and made her formal concession speech the next day, saying, ‘I congratulated Donald Trump and offered to work with him on behalf of our country. I hope that he will be a successful president for all Americans,’” Zakaria wrote. “The following day, President Barack Obama invited Trump to the White House, spent an hour and a half talking with him and promised full cooperation for a successful transition… A political system is not simply a collection of laws and rules. It is also an accumulation of norms and behavior. When Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) says Trump is ‘100 percent within his rights’ to behave as he is, he is missing this crucial distinction.”
Typically, when I hear a government official or politician cite “national security,” my eyes roll into the back of my head. More often than not, citing national security is a tool to deny comment, obscure facts, hide secrets, skirt responsibility or otherwise avoid public scrutiny. Politicians have been refusing to divulge details of war crimes, Congressional hearings, classified information and other matters of public interest under the guise of national security for decades.
That being said, there is a legitimate consensus growing here about the potential damage of delaying this transition. Geraghty is right that Biden’s own team has so far not indicated it’s hampering them in any way — and that context is critical for all the hand wringing on the left. If the president-elect isn’t screaming “this is very bad” I am certainly not going to take up that mantle for him — he knows his way around the White House and I imagine he’ll know when it’s really time to push back.
Still, though, this is a fragile moment. Since I wrote my Friday edition about the fraudulent allegations of fraud, the president’s legal quests have only worsened. On Friday and over the weekend, nearly a dozen more court challenges were thrown out across Pennsylvania and Michigan, and in each instance, the judges were unforgiving in their assessment of the “evidence” being presented. This weekend and this morning, Trump began calling the hand recount in Georgia, which is being overseen by a Republican legislature and a Republican Secretary of State, “fake.” This is the same recount that was supposed to prove widespread fraud last week, but the goalposts appear to be moving again. We can only assume it’s not producing the desired results, or he wouldn’t be undermining it.
Anyway, I don’t see any reason to worry quite yet. But the idea that these election results are going to be overturned gets more absurd by the day, and they were nothing short of fantastical when they began a week ago. As many have already pointed out, allowing the Biden team to get a head start on addressing one of the worst pandemics in U.S. history does not make him president or invalidate Trump’s baseless legal challenges, but it does serve the American people far better for when Biden finally does become president on January 20th. I don’t see any reasons not to designate him as such, but I do see hundreds of reasons — the most prominent being the COVID-19 vaccine rollout — to let his team in the door.
Your questions, answered.
Q: Where do you think the Republican party goes next? Like you say, they are split now between those disavowing Trump and those all for his attempts to delegitimize the election. Do you think that this divide will be around for the long-run — with some fully embracing Trumpist (a word I very much hate) politics well into the future, while others try to pretend the past four years did not happen? Or do you think the party will coalesce around Trumpism? Romney-style conservatism? Something else? I could honestly see it going either way, but I would be curious to get your thoughts on how persistent their present split will be.
— David, New York, NY
Tangle: Frankly, I think it depends almost entirely on where Trump goes and what he does. Does he announce a run for 2024 again shortly after Biden’s inauguration? Does he branch off to start his own media company? Does he exert pressure to challenge the “never-Trump” Republicans who have turned on him? As a former president, Trump will be able to move the party. Cable television hosts on the right and left are obsessed with him. He still has his Facebook and Twitter accounts, and he very well may launch “Trump TV” or some similar endeavor. It’s not as if he doesn’t have experience slapping his name on a branded business idea.
On the one hand, if Trump throws his hat in the ring for 2024, who in the party would dare challenge him? He did receive 72 million votes, he enjoys more than 90% approval ratings from Republicans, he has access to gigantic email and phone lists, and he could keep holding rallies and fundraising for the next four years, creating another formidable campaign infrastructure that no other Republican politician I can think of would be able to challenge.
On the other hand, one way to read this election is that it was both a rejection of Donald Trump and “Trumpism”, but also a rejection of Democratic party control. Hundreds of thousands of crucial voters cast votes for down-ballot Republicans but did not vote for Trump for president. Those voters were key to swinging the outcome of this election, and one imagines they’d be key again in 2024. If you’re a Republican looking at that result, along with the changing demographics of the country and many millions of young anti-Trump Americans becoming voters, it would be easy to conclude that relegating Trumpism to the dustbin is a good long-term play.
My best bet is that Trump remains the head of the party at least for the next two years. Republicans are about to re-enter their opposition posture, and they’ve got Georgia Senate races to win in January and more Congressional elections to win in 2022. They will need Trump, and his support, to keep and regain control of both chambers of Congress, which is an absolute possibility in two years. To be frank, I don’t think we’ll see an “honest” assessment of Trumpism until those elections are over. If Republicans are going to dump him, they’ll wait and do it in 2023 as things gear up for a challenge to Biden’s second term.
At the same time, there are several newly-elected Republican members of Congress who have totally embraced Trump’s style, and plenty of Republican senators who seem determined to embrace and push forward his version of populism. The smart Republican move, in my opinion, would be to continue to motivate and target non-college educated white working-class voters and the Hispanic bloc together. The focus on destroying archaic trade deals, reducing illegal immigration and being a bulwark against the faction of the left that wants to “defund the police” and “control your speech” is a winning message. I don’t see any chance in hell Republicans abandon that kind of politics now — not just because it succeeded for Trump, but because it fits nicely into their worldviews already. It’s a good message for their base and they don’t have to sacrifice anything to get there.
What I do think Republicans will abandon is Trump’s spending habits, his promises to produce a replacement to Obamacare and other mixed messaging on issues like the minimum wage. I’ve said before and I’ll say again, one of the brilliant aspects of Trump’s brand of politics is that he says just enough about everything to give anyone listening to him a taste of something they like. He often takes opposing positions in a single sentence, let alone a single speech or interview. The so-called “political chattering class” gives him unending grief for this, but it’s truly genius in its simplicity. Anyone listening for long enough will almost certainly hear Trump show an affinity for a position they identify with, and he effectively broadens his appeal by being duplicitous.
For Republicans, that kind of double-talk is likely gone, too. The messaging discipline will be a lot stronger, for better or worse (I think for worse), and most of it is going to be about solving the debt crisis, which has been exascerbated by coronavirus and Trump’s tax cuts, reducing illegal immigration and not letting Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez take over the country.
Still, “Romney-style” conservatism looks dead to me, and I see no indication it’s coming back. It failed to produce results in 2008 or 2012, and Republicans can no longer ignore who the base of their party is and whose approval they have to earn. In that way, regardless of how you feel about Trump or his style, he has definitively reshaped the party and set Republicanism on a new path. I’d be shocked if that changes in the next four years.
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A story that matters.
Colleges are becoming split on how to handle Thanksgiving. Some, like Boston University, are asking students to stay on campus and enjoy a “Friendsgiving.” Others, like the University of South Carolina, Syracuse and Emory are ending in-person classes early so students can get home before the rush. In New York, the state university system said students must test negative if they want to leave campus. Penn State is encouraging their students to do the same. At the University of Missouri, campus officials sent students home and told them to stay there until after Christmas — that way they aren’t going back and forth between home and campus. While the timing of bringing kids to and from campus is up for debate, experts are unanimous that students should isolate, get coronavirus tests and get flu shots.
65. The number of days until the presidential inauguration.
45. The number of days until the new year.
25. The number of days until the government’s latest batch of funding runs out.
68,330. The number of votes Joe Biden leads Donald Trump by in Pennsylvania, as of this morning.
78,728. The number of votes Libertarian candidate Jo Jorgensen received in Pennsylvania, as of this morning.
14,172. The number of votes Joe Biden leads Donald Trump by in Georgia, as of this morning.
62,060. The number of votes Libertarian candidate Jo Jorgensen received in Georgia, as of this morning.
10,377. The number of votes Joe Biden leads Donald Trump by in Arizona, as of this morning.
51,465. The number of votes Libertarian candidate Jo Jorgensen received in Arizona, as of this morning.
5,581,617. Joe Biden’s total popular vote lead as of this morning.
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Have a nice day.
There is more good news on the vaccine front. The drugmaker Moderna announced on Monday that its coronavirus vaccine was 94.5% effective based on the first look at results from its large, continuing study. Much like last week’s news about the Pfizer vaccine, the results were “better than they had dared to imagine,” The New York Times reports. Unlike Pfizer, Moderna’s vaccine has a longer shelf life under refrigeration and at room temperature, and was also developed in collaboration with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, headed by Dr. Anthony Fauci. Moderna was also part of Operation Warp Speed and its development was funded by the Trump administration. It says it will have 20 million doses of the vaccine ready by the end of 2020 — Pfizer said it would have 50 million by then.