Joe Biden's attorney general.

Plus: Tangle merch is here.
Isaac Saul Dec 10, 2020
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, 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.

Tangle merch arrives. Plus, who will Biden pick as attorney general? And are Republicans and Democrats headed for a party split?

Merrick Garland (left) chats with Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY). Garland is a top consideration for attorney general.

Merch is here.

A year and a half ago, I was drawing up the concept for this newsletter in a notebook, daydreaming about a political newsletter that could upend the traditional way we discuss politics. I was polling friends about name ideas like “Back Pocket News,” “Answered,” “The Shuffle” and “Unpacked.” I was scrolling through thousands of pages of base logos to build on when I came across a tangled brain that caught my eye. A coworker volunteered her time and slapped a red, white and blue gradient over the brain, something that represented a collection of American thought.

Over a year later, two Tangle readers with some design skills wrote in and asked to help me refine the logo. Tangle is now read in every single state in America, more than 30 countries outside the U.S., and has had a definitive role in moving the conversation on election fraud, stimulus packages, and the Democratic primary. Every day, I feel confident this newsletter is giving Americans a better understanding of the country they live in (and giving folks outside the U.S. a better understanding of America).

So today, I’m very excited to share the first-ever line of Tangle merch — a collection of t-shirts, hoodies, pullovers, tank tops and, yes, even onesies. I’m especially excited because I get to work with Cotton Bureau, a Pittsburgh-based company. As a University of Pittsburgh alum and a Pennsylvania boy, it means a lot to me to be tied to a company from my backyard.

You can check it out and grab your first swag below! And yes… as promised, mugs, stickers, and a few other goodies are all on their way, coming in January.

See the merch!


Quick hits.

  1. Federal prosecutors are investigating Hunter Biden to determine if he failed to report income from China-related business deals, The Washington Post reports. Biden confirmed his “tax affairs” are being investigated, though the scope of the probe may be much wider.
  2. Several Senate Democrats say they won’t vote for the waiver to allow retired Gen. Lloyd Austin to become secretary of defense, jeopardizing Biden’s nomination of the former general.
  3. Jobless claims have jumped sharply as coronavirus cases and hospitalizations continue to break all-time records. Pennsylvania Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has also tested positive for COVID-19.
  4. The House of Representatives passed a one-week spending bill to extend the deadline until government spending dries up on December 18th. Congress is still trying to negotiate another COVID-19 relief bill.
  5. Democrat Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the oldest member of the Senate who recently stepped down as head of the judiciary committee, is “seriously struggling” with a cognitive decline, according to a report in The New Yorker.

What D.C. is talking about.

Joe Biden’s attorney general. Many of Biden’s Cabinet picks have already been announced and covered in Tangle. But of the major posts remaining, including CIA Director, Secretary of Labor and EPA administrator, the most important question is who he will choose for attorney general. Known as America’s “top cop”, the position is currently held by William Barr, and is one of the most important in the federal government, with the power to shape both the Justice Department and how the presidency is overseen.

Xavier Becerra, the California attorney general who was chosen this week to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, was one of the most widely rumored picks. With him out of the running, there are three names that have percolated to the top: Doug Jones, the Alabama senator who lost his re-election campaign this year; Merrick Garland, the former Supreme Court nominee who was boxed out by Sen. Mitch McConnell; and Sally Yates, the attorney general under Barack Obama who President Trump fired after she refused to enforce Trump’s executive order that barred citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States.

While Biden is expected to name his attorney general before the end of the week, there is still much unknown.


What the left is saying.

There’s a lot of jockeying for influence. Different factions on the left are each hoping to influence Biden’s priorities. Some want him to select an attorney general who will make voting rights a high priority. Others want to see a person of color. Some think Sally Yates should be given her job back. And there are plenty of other names out there as well.

In USA Today, Ben Crump wrote about the protests happening across the country and argued that this moment calls for an attorney general with a flawless civil rights record. He endorsed Tony West, a former Justice Department official in the Clinton and Obama administrations.

“During his historic presidential campaign, Biden ran on an ambitious criminal justice reform platform,” Crump wrote. “He promised to end federal private prisons, mandatory minimum sentencing and the federal death penalty, and reexamine the cash bail system. Candidate Biden also said that the school-to-prison pipeline should be abolished. He spoke of uniting our great country and fixing a biased and broken criminal justice system that has unfairly impacted a disproportionate share of Black and brown Americans — particularly Black men.”

“For our communities, this means promoting comprehensive policing reform, restoring voting rights, ensuring fair housing, bringing an end to redlining and adopting equitable sentencing guidelines,” Crump added. “This Cabinet pick will be one of the most important, given the past four years of civil rights wreckage by the Trump administration… In my view, there is no one more uniquely qualified for this role given this significant moment in history than Tony West, the brother-in-law of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.”

“But civil rights is not the sole criterion,” Jennifer Rubin wrote in The Washington Post. “The overarching task for the next attorney general is to clean up the mess left by the most corrupt and out-of-control administration in history. That task falls into two categories… First, new rules, guidelines and training must be instituted to end politicization of enforcement matters and investigations. We need new barriers between the Justice Department and the White House; a review of possibly false assertions in pleadings filed in the Trump administration; an inquiry into who assisted Attorney General William P. Barr in any nefarious activities (e.g., intervening in the Michael Flynn case, refusing to take seriously the Ukraine whistleblower’s claims); and new penalties for lawyers who violate their professional code of ethics and department guidelines.”

“Second, the next attorney general will have to navigate the knotty issue of whether and how to investigate President Trump and his cronies. What actions should be investigated?” she said. This requires someone with a “sophisticated understanding of the Justice Department as a revered institution, but also instant credibility with career attorneys… In short, character, experience and judgment above all else should guide Biden’s choice. From my vantage point, Yates stands above the rest.”

In CNN, Shan Wu argued that “Joe Biden's pick for Attorney General needs to be a person of color. We live in a time of racial division and strife not seen since the 1960s struggle for civil rights -- and we've watched as the Republican Party enabled a race-baiting president for the last four years -- so we need an Attorney General who can speak to the moment at hand.” Wu made the case that any of these folks would fill that bill; Deval Patrick, the former governor of Massachusetts; Neal Kaytal, the former Acting U.S. Solicitor General; Preet Bharara, the former United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York; and Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia State Representative.

“Nominating a person of color will demonstrate the Biden administration is determined to heal these wounds, which would go a long way toward actualizing his promise of creating a cabinet that ‘looks like America,’” Wu said. “But the next Attorney General also needs the toughness, integrity and ability to inspire the passion needed to rejuvenate a Justice Department demoralized and degraded by Attorney General William Barr's efforts to win favor with President Donald Trump.”


What the right is saying.

The right has remained relatively quiet on many of the rumored names, though Merrick Garland has drawn the most praise and Sally Yates has drawn the most scorn.

In a Fox News column, Jonathan Turley argued that nominating Yates for attorney general would make the case for Trump to hand himself a self-pardon.

“Yates’ appointment would be one of the most controversial for President-elect Joe Biden and would likely lead to an intense confirmation fight over her standoff with President Donald Trump at the start of his administration as well as her role in the Russian investigation,” he said. “Yates had already been instrumental in signing off on secret surveillance of Trump associate Carter Page during the Obama administration and had pushed for the investigation of incoming National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Both investigations of possible Russian collusion were found to be without merit and Yates recently said that she would not have signed off on the surveillance if she knew then what she knows today.”

“So why would Yates help? Because her nomination would be the ultimate argument for Trump to use for a self-pardon,” Turley said. “Yates would rekindle far-right deep state conspiracies and confirm for many that the same biased, anti-Trump officials were being returned to the Justice Department. I would hope that Yates would not act in such a predatorial fashion but Biden could not pick anyone (short of former FBI Director James Comey) who would be more triggering for the right.”

In Reason Magazine, Jonathan Adler gave a nod of support to Garland as the next pick for attorney general.

“While Republicans opposed allowing President Obama to shift the balance of the Supreme Court by replacing Justice Scalia with a liberal justice, Judge Garland is well-respected on both sides of the aisle and would likely be a relatively non-controversial Attorney General nominee,” Adler wrote. “More importantly, his stature and independence would give him a degree of credibility more ‘political’ nominees might lack… Indeed, given the tumult and controversy within the Department of Justice these past four years, a figure like Merrick Garland might be just what the Department needs.”

In Powerline Blog, Paul Mirengoff gave Garland a backhanded approval.

“Judge Garland was painted as a moderate by the mainstream media when Barack Obama nominated him to succeed Justice Scalia on the Supreme Court,” Mirengoff wrote. “Garland isn’t a radical, but that doesn’t make him a moderate. He’s a liberal. However, from a conservative perspective, Biden could do worse than Garland for an Attorney General, assuming Garland proved to be more than a figurehead in that job. Indeed, I expect that Biden will do worse. I think he will select someone to the left of Garland (again, for what it’s worth). If Biden goes with Garland, the Democratic base won’t be pleased. Biden will then have to populate the positions just below AG with true believing leftists. In that sense, it’s a lose-lose situation for those who would prefer a non-hard left DOJ.”


My take.

I truly have no idea where Biden is going to go with this pick. Xavier Becerra, who Biden chose for HHS secretary and who has now become one of the more controversial picks, seemed to be the frontrunner for attorney general. Everyone else in contention right now seems to have considerable flaws, and I’m not surprised that Biden is taking his time.

Sally Yates is perfectly qualified for the position, given that she has spent her career at the Department of Justice and has served as both Deputy and Acting Attorney General already. But to call her pick “controversial” for the right doesn’t do it justice. If Trump has any sway over the Republican party after Biden’s inauguration (and I think he’ll still have a lot), Yates would almost certainly be rejected by a Republican-controlled Senate. I just can’t imagine her getting through given how she left the Trump administration, though if Democrats sweep the Georgia runoffs there may be no way for Republicans to stop her confirmation.

Tony West is an interesting option, given how little chatter he’s getting. I agree with Ben Crump that voting rights and criminal justice reform should be top priorities — anyone who has read this newsletter for any period of time knows that I loathe our prison system and the way our country seems designed to put poor people in cages. I’d be thrilled to see an attorney general who I could confidently say was going to make this country a little more just. West was also one of the few people in the Obama administration who went after the financial institutions with a laser focus for the role they played in the 2008 crisis — an admirable record, no doubt.

But there’s a lot to unpack there. Crump’s entire column is about his record but it just barely mentions that he’s currently the general counsel for Uber, and even then it’s only to say he’s a “strong advocate for diversity.” Crump says nothing about West leading Uber’s fight against driver’s rights and pushing Proposition 22, which many progressives worry reduces essential benefits for workers in the gig economy. And West is married to Kamala Harris’s sister. Didn’t we just get through four years of talking about how much we loathe nepotism and familial conflicts of interest? Would putting the vice president’s brother-in-law atop the Justice Department scream “independence” to you? It’s a hard pass from me.

Merrick Garland is interesting, too. He was absolutely qualified to serve on the Supreme Court and I think he was a moderate pick who should have been approved. Given the Barrett confirmation, as I’ve written, there would be some poetic justice in seeing Garland’s path lead to attorney general. The possibility alone is a nice reminder that political ploys like the one used to prevent the Senate from even voting on his nomination for the Supreme Court can have unpredictable and lasting butterfly effects.

But how would Garland handle my aforementioned priorities here? Damon Root makes a strong and troubling case that Garland’s record “tends to line up in favor of broad judicial deference to law enforcement and wartime executive power.” Nearly all of his rulings have come down in favor of prosecutors and police, and I’m not sure he’s the man who meets the moment.

So who is? I really don’t know. Once the choice is made, and we have time to comb the record, it’ll be easier to say. But for all the talk of “will the next attorney general investigate Donald Trump?”, I think the more pressing question is: What are they going to do about Hunter Biden? Today’s news that Biden is, in fact, being investigated by the Justice Department creates an extraordinary situation in that Joe Biden — right this moment — is picking the person to lead a federal law enforcement branch that’s investigating his own son. That creates several problems, especially when one contender is the vice president-elect’s brother-in-law. The whole scene is already making me uneasy, and how this nomination breaks could help define the early years of Biden’s presidency.


Your questions, answered.

Q: There’s some serious tension in US party politics these days, whether it’s the rise of progressives/Democratic socialists on the left or Trumpism/populism on the right. Democrats or Republicans: in the next 10 years, which political party is most likely to split into two parties? Bonus points if you want to make a prediction on what that party will call itself.

— Peter, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Tangle: I love this question. The divisions are very real on both sides, and a lot of Tangle readers have asked recently about the possibility of a rising third party, ranked-choice voting, or other possibilities for tearing down the either-or paradigm that leaves us with Joe Biden or Donald Trump and nobody else.

On the one hand, I think I could make a case that the parties splitting is unlikely. The most powerful, influential progressive Democrats — like Sen. Bernie Sanders — have shown a remarkable acquiescence to the “corporate” wing of the Democratic party, or whatever you want to call the traditional moderate Democrats. When was the last time Sanders meaningfully bucked the party in more than just rhetoric on the campaign trail? It’s been a while. I struggle to think of a nominee or bill or politician that he’s sunk in a real way, though maybe we’ll see some fireworks during Biden’s term.

And then look at the Republicans. Trump has flouted pretty much every conservative norm imaginable, trashed nearly all of his Republican predecessors and every Republican senator who so much as disagrees publicly with him. Now, we’re a month into the charade that he actually won the election and most Republicans are staying quiet. So whose party is it really? If Trumpism hasn’t caused a fracture, what would? We basically have three Republican senators willing to buck Trump, and only one who was willing to run against his record openly (Mitt Romney). I think Trump has won over the Republican base by successfully making the case that traditional, establishment Republican leaders have failed their constituents. In that sense, it feels to me that we’re beyond the party fracturing — I think the party is Trump’s, and I don’t see that changing.

In fact, I can make the case that Republicans have coalesced behind Trump as a bulwark against the left in a way Democrats could only wish to do against Trump. And with him now out of the official picture, no common enemy, the progressive wing of the Democratic party growing in size, and more younger voters registering every day, I would say Democrats are far more ripe for a split.

To me, the rise in fame of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the popularity of Sanders, and the growing legends of members like Sen. Elizabeth Warren or Reps. Katie Porter and Ro Khanna — all progressive icons — speak volumes. Biden won his race in an election where the goal was to beat Trump. But when the legislative goals become reforming the country’s justice system, tackling climate change, reforming immigration, tearing down the wealth gap, reducing corporate power and ensuring healthcare for everyone, I don’t really see the moderate and progressive wings of the party coexisting.

Another way to think of it is this: Who feels more likely to break off and form their own party agenda, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren or Mitt Romney and Susan Collins? Who feels more likely to abandon the label “Democrat” and start recruiting a new era of legislators to their ranks, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar or Reps. Matt Gaetz and Kevin McCarthy? To me the answer is obvious.

As for a name, I’m not sure. But I’d bet the word “socialist” won’t be a part of it. Maybe they bundle into the Green Party. If I were trying to sell it to the public I’d simply formalize “progressive” and call it the Progressive party. The New Democrats? The Future party? The People’s party? I’d be curious what my readers think…

Remember: You can ask a question anytime. All you have to do is reply to this email and write in.


A story that matters.

Rebekah Jones, a former Florida health department worker, shared a video of her home being raided after she left the state health department amidst allegations that it was suppressing the true status of coronavirus spread. Jones, a data scientist, has been running her own portal since June, alleging that she was asked repeatedly by state officials to suppress the true count of coronavirus cases and inflate the number of tests the state was doing. She had placed a hidden camera in her home, which captured law enforcement officials pointing guns at her children and husband. Ron Filipkowski, a Republican lawyer, resigned in protest over the raid — saying the search warrant was “unconscionable.”

Filipkowski, a marine veteran who was appointed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, said he did not believe an assertion from DeSantis’s spokesperson claiming DeSantis was unaware of the raid. “It just seems like it’s not really about any kind of criminal investigation,” Filipkowski told The Washington Post. “It’s about intimidation of her and sending a message to people currently working in state government that, ‘This could be you.’”


Numbers.

  • 7%. The increase in the cost of buying a home over the last year, the largest 12-month gain since 2014.
  • $706,900. The median home price in California in August, the first time it has ever crossed $700,000.
  • 73. The average worldwide life expectancy, six years longer than it was in 2000.
  • 8.9 million. The number of people who died last year from Ischemic heart disease, the most of any single cause.
  • 181%. The increase in the percentage of deaths caused by Alzheimer’s and other dementias in the last 19 years.
  • 3,054. The number of daily deaths from COVID-19 yesterday, the highest single-day total at any point during the pandemic.
  • $300. The federal add-on to state unemployment benefits in a new bipartisan Senate relief package being considered by Congress.
  • 16. The number of weeks that enhanced unemployment benefits would last.

Tomorrow.

Most Fridays, paying subscribers to Tangle get exclusive editions that include interviews with people in the political world, deep dives on topics readers ask about, personal essays or other original reporting. Tomorrow, I’m going to break down the arguments over keeping vs. abolishing the Electoral College. If you want to receive the edition, subscribe below. If you’re already a subscriber, please consider sharing Tangle with friends.

Subscribe now


Have a nice day.

Tina Jensen was working as a manager at a Dairy Queen in Minnesota when a man came to the drive-thru window and said he wanted to buy the order for the car behind him. Jensen told her cashier that this kind of thing happens sometimes, and helped execute the good deed. Occasionally, she said, the chain will continue for 15 or 20 cars. But this time, the chain never really stopped. It went on for two and half days, through over 900 cars, and raked in $10,000 in sales. When the last customer of the night came through on Thursday, they left $10 to pick the chain back up on Friday morning and another $10 to start it up again on Saturday. "During times like these it kinda restores your faith in humanity a little," Heidi Bruse, one of the customers said. "The way the world is now you see a lot of anger, tension, and selfish behavior. What we witnessed was pure kindness and it was a breath of fresh air really."

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Isaac Saul

I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Buck County, PA — one of the most politically divisive counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.

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