Is Biden mentally fit for office?

Plus, a round-up of the weekend's news.
Isaac Saul Aug 24, 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. You can read Tangle for free, and you can reach me anytime by replying to this email. If someone sent you this email, they’re asking you to subscribe. You can do that by clicking here.

Today’s read: 10 minutes.

It was a crazy weekend, so I am abandoning the normal format to give you one of Tangle’s patented round-ups of the weekend. Also: I answer a question about whether Biden is mentally fit for office.

Screenshot from ABC News interview.

The news.

Every now and then, there is so much news in a short period of time that a “Quick hits” section and a major story of the day isn’t enough to cover it. The last 72 hours are a prime example. So, instead of the standard format, I’m going to give you a rundown of what happened over the weekend so you’re in the loop on the stories that are crucial to the political landscape.

Perhaps the biggest news from the weekend was Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’s first television interview together. The pair sat down with ABC News — first with David Muir and then with Robin Roberts. The crux of the interviews seemed to be the Biden-Harris ticket responding to the three major attacks from Trump: 1) That they were going to “defund the police” 2) That Biden was not mentally fit for office, and 3) That a Biden-Harris administration would raise taxes on the middle class. The two were pressed on these three issues repeatedly throughout the interview.

When asked if he supports defunding the police, Biden literally laughed. "No, I don't... I think they need more help, they need more assistance." Later in the interview, he said “more help” would be money that goes toward “psychologists, sociologists, people who can get involved in making sure they can negotiate things that don't require a policeman with a gun to deal with.” On whether he was mentally unfit for office, Biden smiled, telling President Trump “watch me” and promising that he was already preparing for debates. On raising taxes, Biden pledged to only raise taxes on Americans making more than $400,000 a year.

On COVID-19, Biden pledged to “listen to the scientists” but also made some news when he said he would shut the country down again if that’s what his panel of health experts told him was necessary to contain the virus. Those comments drew a strong rebuke from The Wall Street Journal editorial board, which wrote “we know why his advisers have kept Joe Biden under wraps,” citing the numerous negative impacts of the shutdowns on the American public (from the economic crisis to the increased prevalence of other health issues). “He wants to blame Mr. Trump for unemployment but another lockdown would cost millions more jobs,” the board wrote. “A President has to consider the larger national interest, and that means listening to economists and health experts beyond epidemiologists.”

You can read a transcript of Biden-Harris with David Muir here or a transcript of their interview with Robin Roberts here.

COVID-19.

Speaking of coronavirus, there was a lot of news over the weekend on the pandemic. The outbreak’s spread continues to slow across the U.S., in large part due to a reduction in the rate of new cases in the South and Southwest, Axios reported. “The U.S. averaged just under 49,000 new cases per day over the past week — still a lot of cases, and far too many to declare any sort of victory over the coronavirus, but an improvement from the 65,000 daily cases we were averaging in mid-July.” New cases fell to their lowest level in two months, The Wall Street Journal noted. Take a look at this screenshot of Axios’s map using data from the COVID Tracking Project:


Data: The COVID Tracking Project, state health departments; Map: Andrew Witherspoon, Naema Ahmed, Danielle Alberti, Sara Wise/Axios

There was also a new FDA protocol approval. The agency gave the green light to convalescent plasma, a treatment where patients who are seriously sick with COVID-19 are given blood plasma from patients who have recovered and have antibody-rich blood. Convalescent plasma has been viewed by experts as an interim approach until a medical treatment is discovered, but it’s been called a “breakthrough” by the president and his allies. More than 72,000 people have been transfused through an FDA-sponsored program so far, though fewer than that were evaluated to test the efficacy of the treatment.

Via WSJ: “Hospitalized patients who received the plasma within three days of diagnosis, are under the age of 80 and not on mechanical ventilation, benefited the most, with a 35% improvement in survival 30 days after receiving the transfusion compared with patients who got plasma with low antibody levels,” according to Peter Marks, the director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research. The agency says it will continue to evaluate the protocol’s effectiveness.

President Trump, at a press conference on Sunday, praised the move while also criticizing the agency on Twitter and saying it was slowing down efforts to roll out the coronavirus vaccine and drugs for political reasons (there’s no evidence for this claim, and in fact experts say the drug and vaccine development is moving at a remarkable speed, something the president may consider campaigning on).

There was some bad news, too. In Hong Kong, researchers have discovered the first documented case of reinfection, a sign that immunity to the virus may only last a few months in some people. “An apparently young and healthy patient had a second case of Covid-19 infection which was diagnosed 4.5 months after the first episode,” University of Hong Kong researchers said Monday. The 33-year-old man had mild symptoms the first time and no symptoms this time.

Trump.

There was a lot of Trump news this weekend, too. What else is new? The Republican convention kicks off tonight, following last week’s news that was dominated by the Democratic convention. Every member of the immediate Trump family is scheduled to speak this week, including the president’s daughter Tiffany, who has so far avoided much of the spotlight. President Trump is scheduled to speak on all four nights of the convention. Republicans have promised some major surprises and big stories as well, saying they learned from mistakes Democrats made during their convention last week.

There will be some precedent breaking, too. Last week, I noted how President Obama took the unusual (though not totally unprecedented) step of naming and shaming a sitting president. This week, Trump will deliver an acceptance speech for the Republican nomination from the White House, and Melania Trump will deliver her own remarks from the Rose Garden. Both President Bush and President Obama “mixed a measure of campaigning with official White House business, especially in election years,” The Washington Post reported. But Trump “has trampled over norms once respected by both parties and challenged legal boundaries that limit political activity by federal officials, ethics lawyers said.”

The president also lost one of his longtime staff members. Kellyanne Conway, who is one of the president’s longest-tenured and most loyal aides, announced on Twitter that she was leaving the White House, citing the need to spend more time with her family. Conway’s husband George, who has been a leading voice in the never-Trump Republican group The Lincoln Project, has also said he’ll be leaving them, which has caused a lot of D.C. speculation about the state of the couple’s marriage and the bizarre dynamic of a husband and wife who are so publicly, diametrically opposed politically.

Things seemed to take a bit of a darker turn recently, when the Conways’ 15-year-old daughter Claudia started her own Twitter account, amassed close to 400,000 followers, and used it to hammer both of her parents. Then, this weekend, Claudia told her followers she was seeking “emancipation” from her parents and accused George and Kellyanne of a lifetime of “physical and verbal abuse.” It was shortly after Claudia began trending on Twitter that Kellyanne and George each announced they were taking time away from politics. Then Claudia announced she was taking a break from Twitter, too.

That wasn’t the only family drama this weekend, either. On Saturday, secretly recorded audio of Maryanne Trump Barry, President Trump’s sister, was released. In it, Barry — who served as a federal judge — can be heard criticizing Trump for only trying to appeal to his base, for all of his “lying,” for never reading, and says “He has no principles. None.” The audio files were secretly recorded by Mary L. Trump, the president’s niece, who just released a tell-all book about her dad (Donald Trump’s brother) and the president. Barry has stayed quiet during most of Trump’s presidency, and it’s the first time any of Donald Trump’s siblings can be heard criticizing him publicly.

2020 election.

Last week, I covered the issue of mail-in voting in a few different write-ups. There was some more news over the weekend, though. A new Washington Post analysis found that more than 534,000 mail ballots were rejected during primaries across 23 states this year, a quarter of which were rejected in key battleground states for the November election. The analysis shows “how missed delivery deadlines, inadvertent mistakes and uneven enforcement of the rules could disenfranchise voters and affect the outcome of the presidential election.” In 2016, Donald Trump won Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin by just under 80,000 votes. This year, 60,480 mail ballots in those three states were thrown out, according to The Post’s analysis.

Relatedly, the USPS released a new election guidance this week telling voters to “request ballots at the earliest point allowable, but no later than 15 days prior to the election date.”

Some other concerns popped up, too. President Trump set off a wave of criticism when he told Fox News’s Sean Hannity that he wanted law enforcement at polling places. "We're going to have everything," Trump said. "We're going to have sheriffs, and we're going to have law enforcement, and we're going to have, hopefully, U.S. attorneys, and we're going to have everybody, and attorney generals. But it's very hard."

Some never-Trump Republicans also formalized their opposition to POTUS. Over two-dozen former GOP members of Congress launched a “Republicans for Biden” effort, including former Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, who retired last year after publicly criticizing the president toward the end of his term.

Finally, the 19-year-old Kansas Democrat who won his primary and was on a glide path to joining the Kansas legislature has withdrawn from the race. Aaron Coleman, who admitted to sharing a nude photo of a girl online when he was in middle school because she wouldn’t provide more photos to him, had come under increased scrutiny in the last few weeks. Coleman’s admission of “revenge porn” as a 12 or 13-year-old elevated Democratic fears he’d sink their odds in other races. Coleman received some favorable coverage from outlets like The Intercept this weekend, which framed his past transgressions as a child as mistakes he had atoned for and products of his upbringing.

Unrest.

It was another heavy weekend of civil unrest in the United States. In Portland, antifa protesters and members of the Proud Boys and far-right militias sparred in the streets over the weekend. More than 100 far-right activists and armed militia members came into Portland for a “Back the Blue” rally. They were met by antifa and Black Lives Matter protesters. “People in the far-right crowd came armed with paintball guns, metal rods, aluminum bats, fireworks, pepper spray, rifles and handguns,” The Washington Post reported. “Some people in the opposing left-leaning crowd brought rocks, fireworks and bottles filled with chemical solutions. Both crowds sported shields and helmets.”

For more than two hours, each side exchanged blows, fired paintballs at each other and blasted chemicals into the crowds. Some lobbed fireworks back and forth as well. Portland police officers “remained at a distance” as the brawls between the crowds unfolded. “Each skirmish appeared to involve willing participants and the events were not enduring in time, so officers were not deployed to intervene,” the Portland Police Bureau said in a statement.

In Kenosha, Wisconsin, demonstrations and looting lasted through the night after a video went viral showing Wisconsin police shooting Jacob Blake in the back as he tried to get into his vehicle. Blake, who is Black, was on the scene breaking up a fight, according to witnesses. Police were called to the scene for a domestic incident and tried to taser Blake when they arrived. Cell phone footage of the incident shows a crowd of neighbors around Blake, the police and his car. The cops draw their guns on Blake and give him several commands which are not intelligible on the recording. Blake seems to refuse, walking back to his car and opening the driver’s side door. The cops then shoot him seven times from behind.

The most recent reports say that Blake is in stable condition in the hospital. A civil rights attorney said he was shot in front of his three sons, who were in the backseat of his car. After footage of the incident spread online, large crowds began gathering at the intersection where he was shot, which then led to a march through Kenosha. The city declared a state of emergency and issued a curfew until 7 a.m. Monday, and a public safety alert gave guidance for 24-hour businesses to close “due to numerous arm robberies and shots fired calls.”

Assorted goods.

There were a few other eye-catching headlines this weekend, too.

In California, 560 known wildfires are blazing across the state after 12,000 lightning strikes this week collided with unprecedented high temperatures. Over 200,000 people are under evacuation orders. "Scientists say there is no doubt that climate change is driving the extreme weather, increasing the threats to property and life," The Washington Post reported. At the same time, the state is undergoing a wave of blackouts due to a poorly managed renewable energy initiative, the WSJ reports.

Attorney General William Barr said he was “vehemently opposed” to a pardon for Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who disclosed highly classified government surveillance programs and is in Russia avoiding persecution. Barr’s comments come just days after President Trump said he’d “take a very good look” at potentially pardoning Snowden.

A Wall Street Journal exclusive said Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg helped stoke fears about TikTok in Washington D.C., setting off concerns the high-powered executive was leveraging the U.S. government to clamp down on a competitor.


Time machine.

This Joe Biden tweet, from October of 2019, popped back up this weekend and was shared more than 24,000 times:


Your questions, answered.

Reminder: You can ask questions, too. All you have to do is reply to this email and write in. It goes straight to my inbox.

Q: I've seen this Trump campaign ad come up on YouTube a few times now, and I think it's an effective one because it touches at a real fear from some of us on the left—is Biden as cognitively sharp as he needs to be? One consequence of his relatively quiet campaign is that we haven't seen him talk all that often in recent months, opening the door for Trump to plant that seed. He's always had gaffes, and he's never been the speaker that Obama is, but at 77 years old I think it's reasonable to wonder. I'm voting for him either way, but for the few that are undecided: is Biden's mental soundness a legitimate concern?

— Jacob, Detroit, Michigan

Tangle: I don’t know how it couldn’t be a legitimate concern. All you have to do is watch him speak in any forum, from debates to public appearances, to wonder.

It’s not just that Biden is old, which he is. When Donald Trump was inaugurated, he was 70 — the oldest first-term president in history. Ronald Reagan was 73 years and 274 days old at his second inauguration, which was historically old. Bill Clinton, who spoke at the Democratic convention last week and last served in the White House twenty years ago, is 74 right now. Joe Biden is 77. He’d be far and away the oldest president ever to get inaugurated for the first time, and with that age come questions about his health.

Now, a few things to get out of the way: First, age alone should not be disqualifying. My grandmother was 97 years old when she died, and in the last decade of her life she was sharper than a lot of middle-aged people I knew (and, frankly, a lot of people working in government today). Second, Biden’s campaign has recently responded to questions about his “mental soundness” by elevating the story of Biden getting over his stutter, which is very real — and actually quite moving. Third, Biden is running against Donald Trump, for whom — much like Biden — one could easily make highlight reels of him speaking and sounding as if he didn’t know where he was, what he was talking about or who he was talking to. In fact, if you read Biden and Trump quotes side-by-side, you may actually have a hard time distinguishing the two men.

All that being said, simply watching Biden speak publicly five years ago and watching him today on the very same show gives me a great deal of concern. What sticks out to me is how often he interjects in his speech, changes course when answering a question or stutters while speaking about a topic I know (from reporting on him for years) he is very well-versed in. I remember when Biden’s campaign first launched in 2019 and seeing him speak for the first time and thinking “wow, he’s aged dramatically very quickly.”

He’s always been “gaffe-prone,” as many left-leaning reporters lovingly describe him, but that, too, has seemed to have increased in recent years. On the campaign trail, he told bizarre stories that weren’t true and had mix-ups and “gaffes” so frequently that there are dozens of lists of them across the web — like Newsweek’s “Joe Biden's Biggest Gaffes in His 2020 Campaign.”

At other times, the man simply seems to forget what he’s saying. On several occasions, he literally forgot where he was when he was campaigning. He forgot what he was saying in the middle of one of his very few press conferences this summer and forgot what question he was answering during a virtual town hall. In one particularly cringe moment, he forgot the words of the Declaration of Independence mid-sentence. He even seemed to forget what office he was running for, though that’s a mistake I think is the most excusable given that he’s probably said “I’m Joe Biden and I’m running for the U.S. Senate” a few thousand times in his life.

The point, though, is that he forgets. A lot. And in ways other candidates closer to his age — like Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders (who is a year older) never do. It’s also evident to me that he seems far less articulate, sharp and “present” now than he did five years ago, and especially ten or 15 years ago. Given his age, I don’t know how or why this would not be a central conversation and concern for voters. None of this is proof of some serious mental decline, of course, but it’s absolutely concerning for me.

I’m also not a doctor and not a psychologist and I am simply drawing some conclusions or sharing observations based on my layman skills here. But there are actual, real, documented medical issues, too. Biden survived two brain aneurysms in the 1980s, which I imagine is the textbook definition of having a “history” of health issues related to how your brain functions. The issue was further complicated by “subsequent deep vein thrombosis and pulmonary embolism,” according to NBC News. Again: I'm not a doctor, but I do have enough common sense to know that’s worth knowing.

The other side of all this, though, is that Biden just had the best week imaginable related to questions about his fitness. He delivered an acceptance speech at the convention that went off without a hitch and, as Tangle noted, received some positive press from across the aisle. Over the weekend, his physician released the latest report on his health, saying he was a “healthy, vigorous, 77-year-old male, who is fit to successfully execute the duties of the Presidency to include those as Chief Executive, Head of State and Commander in Chief.” The report also noted no complications from the aforementioned aneurysms. I’m not expecting Joe Biden’s personal physician to deliver any bad news, but that was a good step for the campaign to take.

And then, Sunday, as discussed in our top story, Biden sat down for his first television grilling. And I have to say: he looked pretty good. He certainly looked better than he has in other public appearances this summer. He seemed very sharp, very present, very amicable and very well prepared for the interview. Politically speaking, Biden may even be benefitting from all the attention Trump is giving to his mental fitness. It seems the bar has been lowered so far that simply stringing together a few sentences without losing his train of thought is enough for Biden to look good and gain praise, perhaps a sign of a political miscalculation by the Trump campaign. So if you’re team Biden, that’s the good news.


Numbers.

  • 32%. The percentage of independents who view Joe Biden favorably, according to a recent SurveyMonkey poll.
  • 7%. The percentage of voters who cast a ballot for Donald Trump in 2016 and hold a favorable view of Biden.
  • 85%. Joe Biden’s favorability amongst Democrats.
  • 77%. Kamala Harris’s favorability amongst Democrats.
  • 69%. The percentage of Americans who said they’d support a “priority system” for distributing the coronavirus vaccine within the U.S.
  • 31%. The percentage of Americans who said they’d support a first-come, first-served approach to distributing the coronavirus vaccine within the U.S.
  • 66%. The percentage of Americans who said that if the U.S. develops the vaccine, it should only be made available abroad after all U.S. orders have been filled.
  • 39%. The percentage of U.S. adults who say that they like Joe Biden as a person.
  • 29%. The percentage of U.S. adults who say that they like Donald Trump as a person.

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Have a nice day.

Seattle’s municipal court has launched a new program to keep low-level offenders out of jail. Instead of jail, the “Seattle Community Court” will connect people charged with certain offenses (like theft or criminal trespassing) to services like drug treatment and housing. Victoria VanNocken, head of the city attorney’s special courts unit, said the new court is trying to address “crimes of desperation a lot of times, like shoplifting because you’re homeless and you’re hungry. This is a therapeutic intervention that doesn’t involve incarceration.” Advocates for the new program say they are trying to reform the way the city handles low-level crimes to reduce the cyclical nature of offenders who often get trapped in a pattern of crime, court and incarceration in the current system.

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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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