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Today’s read: 12 minutes.
The Obama-Trump-Flynn drama, a question about what Trump could have done better in his COVID-19 response and a benefits program you may have missed.
President Barack Obama is back in the news this week. Photo: Gage Skidmore | Flickr
On Thursday, Josh from Owasso, Oklahoma wrote in about Trump’s response to COVID-19 (and asked today’s reader question). He noted that in the last newsletter, I “complained that we have the largest absolute number of deaths in the world, while neglecting the fact that we're the 3rd most populated country in the world and the other fact that China's lying about their numbers.” He also noted that I wrote, “on a per capita basis, we're only catching up on testing, but you never mentioned that, on a per capita basis, our deaths are rather low compared to the rest of the world.” He also responded to me wondering how Trump supporters could believe he responded well to COVID-19 and said that while he didn’t consider himself a Trump supporter, “Trump, according to nearly every governor in the U.S., even the Democratic ones, provided states with the supplies that they need and asked for.”
Josh and I had a bit of a back-and-forth where I pushed back on some of this. It’s true that Democratic and Republican governors have praised Trump’s response. It’s also true many of them have criticized his response, and some seem to be complimenting him because they believe it’s a way to get help from the federal government. But I do think it’s a fair criticism that I did not contextualize some COVID-19 data on a per capita basis and — as I’ve written — China’s numbers are clearly fudged.
On a per-capita basis, according to Statista, we are 9th out of 140 countries in deaths per million. Here is how the top 15 looks:
Again, I think it’s fair that Josh called this out — the absolute number of deaths and per capita number of deaths are valuable data points. I’ve said before that COVID-19 has flummoxed even the best governments, and this data here shows that plenty of countries who the left idolizes for their health care systems or leadership are in the top-10 of per capita deaths. But I also think these numbers look very bad for the White House, too. Being in the top 6% of all countries in per capita death is not the sign of a successful response. I’ll talk more about how we got here in my response to Josh’s reader question today.
What D.C. is talking about.
Barack Obama and Michael Flynn. It all started on Friday, when former President Barack Obama criticized President Trump in a private call with nearly 3,000 former staffers — members of the Obama Alumni Association — designed to drum up enthusiasm about supporting Biden. Obama said that the “rule of law is at risk” after the Justice Department dropped its charges against former national security adviser Michael Flynn. The Justice Department dropped charges against Flynn for lying to the FBI, which he pleaded guilty to, on the grounds that the interview where Flynn lied was not “conducted with a legitimate investigative basis.” Obama added that “There is no precedent that anybody can find for someone who has been charged with perjury just getting off scot-free.” (Note: Obama incorrectly stated that Flynn was charged with perjury, which is lying under oath in a legal proceeding. Flynn was charged with and pleaded guilty to lying to FBI agents.)
President Trump and conservatives responded with a fury, accusing Obama of orchestrating the Flynn case and setting him up in an effort to take Trump down as Obama transitioned out of office. The president repeatedly tweeted or shared the hashtag “OBAMAGATE,” which started trending on Twitter. Obama’s comments on the call were notable — and some of his starkest criticism of Trump yet (he also called Trump’s coronavirus response “an absolute chaotic disaster”). The Obama team is notoriously good at avoiding leaks, so there was plenty of speculation the comments were meant to make their way from the call to the media.
What the right is saying.
Regarding Michael Flynn, the right is adamant that the more information we see, the more obvious it is that this was a political hit job. Not only did the FBI fail to find any crime committed by Flynn while investigating him, but it also withheld important evidence (like the transcript of Flynn’s call) that would have changed his plea in the case. On top of that, documents presented to the court last week show former FBI Director James Comey told his “deputies not to inform the White House general counsel of the visit and not to tell the White House about his [Flynn’s] conversation with the ambassador,” a decision Comey’s acting Attorney General Sally Yates opposed. Many on the left have contended that Flynn lied and pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators, and that’s enough for him to face charges. But conservatives make the case that if that were true, then Andrew McCabe and James Clapper and John Brennan and Tom Perez — all allies of the Obama admin — should be facing charges for lying under oath to Congress or lying to federal investigators.
Constitutional law scholar Jonathan Turley also hit back at Obama, saying “people of good faith can certainly disagree on the wisdom or basis for the Flynn motion” but Obama is wrong about the “perjury” charges and wrong that there is no precedent for the motion. In fact, Obama’s former prosecutor Eric Holder applied the very same logic in 2009. At that time, Holder suggested Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, a Republican, had charges against him dismissed because certain information that was not released could have provided a stronger defense for Stevens during his trial. “It was done before the same judge, Judge Sullivan,” Turley said. “How is that for precedent?”
What the left is saying.
Regarding Michael Flynn, the left is dumbstruck that Flynn is being re-framed as a hero or a victim. The Trump-led Justice Department “repeats the conservative canard that there was no need to interview Flynn because the FBI already had a transcript of his conversation with the ambassador,” Randall Eliason wrote in The Washington Post. “But the issue was never the exact words they exchanged — it was why the conversation took place and who directed Flynn to have the discussion. Was the incoming Trump administration potentially promising to ease sanctions on Russia as a quid pro quo for Russian assistance during the election?” Noah Feldman wrote in Bloomberg that the Flynn case is still yet to be dismissed — in order for it to truly end, Judge Emmet G. Sullivan has to accept the dismissal. Typically, that’s a no-brainer when prosecutors drop their charges. But Feldman encourages Sullivan to hold the line, given that the “defendant has already admitted to the crime; the executive branch is dismissing charges against a former administration official; and the president encouraged the former FBI director to make the same case go away.”
As for “precedent,” Jeffrey Toobin sided with Obama, saying he did not know “of another instance where the department has voluntarily dropped a case in which the defendant had pleaded guilty—especially a case such as this, in which the judge had already rejected the arguments that Barr’s subordinates made in dismissing the case.” Sen. Stevens’ case was much different, given that he did not admit to his guilt like Flynn did in court (twice). Instead, Stevens pleaded not guilty and was convicted by a jury — charges that were dropped after “persistent problems stemming from the actions of prosecutors.”
I continue to see-saw on Flynn. On the one hand, the idea that he’s a victim seems absurd to me. Flynn is an experienced government official who had high-level lawyers, intimate knowledge of the system he was working in and a shady political history — shady enough that Obama (who had worked with him) tried to personally warn Trump against selecting him as a national security adviser. Almost all of this debate has seemingly forgotten the other context of this story, too, which is that Flynn also lied about his foreign lobbying work for Turkey. Sure, his call to the Russian ambassador may have been advancing U.S. interests, but at a time when Russia was actively playing games in our election — and with a character like Flynn — it’s not a mystery as to why the FBI wanted to talk to him. Eliason makes this argument in convincing fashion: the Justice Department is saying that “if you’re investigating the Trump campaign’s Russia contacts, and learn new information about a former campaign official (and now member of the administration) who recently had Russia contacts, there’s no good reason to talk to him. That claim is absurd on its face.”
At the same time, it’s clear the FBI was not fully transparent about what it was doing. The court filing by Flynn’s lawyers is worth reading — and it’s pretty easy to follow the timeline they’ve laid out. It may emerge at some point, but right now there’s no real evidence that Obama was involved in coordinating some hit job on Flynn (despite the “OBAMAGATE” tweets). But there is evidence Comey was ignoring the arguments made by top Justice Department figures, who wanted to alert the White House about the call. Essentially, the FBI became aware of Flynn’s contacts with the Russian ambassador after they were prepared to close an investigation of him. They had the transcripts of the call and knew that the call was rather benign (Flynn was basically asking the Russians to hold tight on responding to Obama-era sanctions because the new administration would come back to the negotiating table).
Instead of alerting Trump and the White House about the call, though, Comey and the FBI began setting up their interview with Flynn. They went in openly debating the purpose of the interview. They went after Flynn under the guise of enforcing The Logan Act, but they knew charges for violating that act would never stick (I’ve written about the absurdity of that law), so the agents pondered whether they were trying to get him to confess to the call, trying to catch him lying or trying to get him fired — and they went over to the White House without coordinating with the Justice Department. Flynn’s lawyers note that people at the DOJ were apoplectic when they realized the FBI was on its way to the White House to interview Flynn.
All of these details and the evidence supporting them were kept from Flynn during the trial. And regardless of how you feel about or interpret them, these details matter — and certainly could have been used to elevate Flynn’s defense. Even as someone with an unfavorable view of Flynn, I don’t think he should’ve been subjected to a trial that was so unfairly constructed. Nor does the law. Yes, he pleaded guilty. And that begs plenty of questions — but it does not let the prosecutors off the hook. He was under tremendous financial and personal pressure to take the plea deal and serve his time, and we’ve seen how courts work against the prosecuted in this way, from the low-level drug offender all the way up to people like Flynn.
Ultimately, I think many things can be true at once: Flynn is not an innocent actor here and he shouldn’t have ever been serving as the national security adviser in the first place — there were far more qualified options. It seems clear he lied to the FBI and what happened to him in court happens to people all throughout the justice system every day. And yet, the FBI was not forthright with the full scope of its case against Flynn, how that case was put together, and all the evidence it had, until now. That handicapped Flynn’s defense in a way that is indefensible. The details are not flattering, and I’m very curious to see how the judge in Flynn’s case reacts to this new filing — or if new evidence becomes public.
Kamala Harris has emerged as the frontrunner for Vice President. Democrats are pushing for a phase 4 coronavirus legislation — one that includes another $1 trillion for states and local governments, $25 billion for the postal service and another round of direct payments to Americans. But Republicans want to wait to see what happens after money from the first packages leaves the door. Dr. Anthony Fauci will be among several Trump administration health officials who are testifying in front of the Senate and House this week about the administration’s COVID-19 response. The Supreme Court will hear three virtual arguments this week: exemptions for religious employers related to discrimination lawsuits, a case about Trump’s tax returns and an argument over whether presidential electors have to cast a ballot for the candidate who wins the popular vote in their state. On Thursday, the House Intelligence Committee released transcripts from its investigation into Trump-Russia collusion. The transcripts largely confirm public reporting that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, that the Trump administration sometimes encouraged or solicited that effort, but that no direct evidence was uncovered of the two sides conspiring together — despite many Democrats claiming such evidence existed.
Your questions, answered.
Reminder: reader questions is one of my favorite parts of Tangle. If you have something you want to see in the newsletter, simply reply to this email and write in. I’ll try to get to it as soon as I can.
Q: In the last issue, you were highly critical of Trump's response to the coronavirus and didn't provide any specifics on what he did wrong. So what do you think Trump did wrong and what do you think he could have done better in regards to his COVID-19 response?
— Josh, Owasso, Oklahoma
Tangle: I want to start my response by saying there are two different ways to address this answer, and I’m going to try to separate them. The first is the more damning part of my answer: what Trump could have done differently based on what we knew and understood at the time the pandemic was unfolding. This answer is based on investigative reporting about Trump’s response and going back in time to what our understanding of COVID-19 was in January, February and March as the administration’s response unfolded. Second is less important, but still relevant, which is how the administration could have acted with the hindsight of what we know now. However, I don’t think it’s fair to Trump to focus on this second part of the response — even though you could make an argument that, as the leading world power, we should have been ahead of the curve. Instead, I’m going to focus solely on the first part: what could have been done differently given what we knew as things unfolded.
First, and perhaps most obvious, are the president’s public comments about the virus. This is the low-hanging fruit of this response but it bears repeating, given that presidents have a bigger megaphone than any health official or epidemiologist. Trump downplayed the virus over and over and over again. In January and February, he said it would go away in April with the heat, promised we “had it totally under control,” said the total cases would be down to “one or two people over the next short period of time” (in February), said “it’s going to disappear… like a miracle.” In March, as the reality of the virus became clear, Trump continued: “I’m not concerned at all,” he said on March 7th. The outbreak will “wash away” this summer, he said on March 16th. “Anybody that needs a test can get one,” he falsely said on March 6th. “We think the deaths will be at a very low number,” he said on March 30th. All of these comments are on video and indisputable. And they say nothing of his repeated public appearances shaking hands, not wearing a mask or carelessly musing about potential cures to the virus when none were available.
How much damage have those comments caused? It’s impossible to say and I won’t make any projections here. But what I’m certain of is that if the president had been telling the American public in mid-February that the virus was dangerous, that people needed to be isolating themselves if they were sick, that everyone should be extra cautious about washing their hands, many fewer people would have contracted this thing. And, at the time, officials in his administration were urging him to make those recommendations.
Second is that we’ve had months to get together a national testing plan in place but still seem to be floundering. When Trump addressed the country on March 11th, I gave the details of his plan — which largely focused on the economy — a B+. At the time, I noted that the major thing lacking was any coherent strategy for testing the public, which experts repeatedly said was key to identifying, isolating and defeating the virus. It’s been two months since that address and I’m still not sure what the federal government’s plan is besides putting the plan off onto the states. Trump has proudly boasted that we’ve administered more tests than any other country — which is true. But, by your standard laid out at the top of the newsletter, we should look at that number on a per-capita basis. And if you do that, we’re 39th overall. Defenders of Trump have noted that we’re 39th because that count includes small countries like Bermuda, which is true. But we’re also behind plenty of big, wealthy countries like Canada, and this says nothing of all the tests that have taken weeks to get results or have been inaccurate or unavailable in places that need them most.
Third is the simple reality of the team Trump has around him. A president is responsible for the people he employs, and Trump’s team has been (mostly) a disaster in addressing the pandemic. The New York Times published a story on April 11th, with six bylines, detailing how infighting, distrust, a focus on the stock market and a number of inexperienced leaders in Trump’s orbit hampered the administration’s response. Perhaps most importantly, the story details how a Trump administration official’s plea to have Americans begin social distancing took three or four weeks to hit the public because of all the chaos in the administration. I couldn’t possibly recap a piece of that detail here, but you can read it and judge for yourself. The story is not “fake news,” as some Trump defenders have claimed. On the contrary, The Times includes screenshots of actual source material like emails between administration officials to back up its reporting.
There are a dozen other things I can think of off the top of my head, too. Trump (and Cuomo, who failed on this too) should have released specific guidelines on actions nursing homes needed to take as far back as February when the virus was already being dubbed the “Boomer remover” by seventh graders. Today, nursing homes account for one-third of all U.S. deaths. His administration oversaw an economic response that doled out “small business loans” to tiny little companies like… The Los Angeles Lakers. Trump has put Jared Kushner in charge of streamlining the procurement of crucial PPE and medical equipment for hospitals despite the fact that he’s completely inexperienced at handling such a project — which showed. Trump has openly favored governors and politicians who support him in getting that PPE to states, all while encouraging his supporters to “liberate” their states under lockdown with inflammatory tweeting. Even Republican governors have been flabbergasted at how hard it is to get federal help. And part of that is because for weeks in February and early March, Trump was resistant to declaring a national emergency, which would have activated agencies like FEMA to help.
All of these things are pretty damning and pretty alarming mistakes, in my view. Yet, they are based solely on public reporting, Trump’s own comments and the excellent work of journalists from across the political spectrum. What else will we learn when members of Trump’s coronavirus task force testify before Congress? And what about the fact I’ve said nothing of what it may have looked like if we were actually leading the global response instead of fumbling behind it?
I hope my own personal grading of Trump’s plan in March, which was relatively positive, can lend credence to the fact I was ripe to give this administration credit if they earned it. But they haven’t. The execution has been fumbled and the results of the pandemic — what we’re living through now — prove that.
A story that matters.
When the coronavirus shutdowns began, Congress prioritized implementing a paid leave program that would help workers cope with new challenges like childcare. But as the program has gotten off the ground, it’s become clear many Americans are ineligible or simply don’t know about its existence. “Eligible workers can receive two weeks off at full pay, up to $511 a day, for sick leave, and 12 weeks at two-thirds pay, up to $200 a day, if their children’s schools or child care are closed,” The New York Times reports. Americans at companies with more than 500 people are excluded from both of the paid leave benefits — which is about 48% of the entire workforce. Workers at companies smaller than 50 employees are included, but the law allows employers to exempt themselves from providing the 12 weeks of childcare leave (not the sick leave), The Times reports. The 1-2 punch of a public relations failure (getting the message out about the program) and a policy failure (baked in exemptions that leave many workers unable to get the benefits) have handicapped what looked like a promising program. You can read The New York Times story here or find out if you’re eligible here.
- 70%. The percentage of jobs lost in 2009’s “Great Recession” that belonged to men, earning it the moniker the “Mancession.”
- 13.5%. The percentage of men who are now unemployed, according to the latest Labor Department statistics.
- 16.2%. The percentage of women who are now unemployed, indicating this economic disruption may disproportionately impact women.
- 33 million. The number of Americans who have applied for unemployment since late March.
- 60,000. The average number of people who were represented by one House member in 1789.
- 740,000. The average number of people who were represented by one House member now.
- 98. The number of days until the scheduled Democratic convention in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
- 105. The number of days until the scheduled Republican convention in Charlotte, North Carolina.
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Have a nice day.
Nearly everyone who has contracted coronavirus — regardless of how serious their case — developed antibodies to the virus, according to a new study covered by The New York Times last week. The latest examination of COVID-19 patients has not been peer-reviewed yet, but it is subduing some fears that the virus was mutating so fast people couldn’t develop immunity to it. “This is very good news,” Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University in New York, said. The new study was based on an antibody test developed by a virologist at Icahn School of Medicine which, unlike the ones that proceeded it, has less than a 1 percent chance of producing a false-positive. “The study also eased a niggling worry that only some people — only those who were severely ill, for example — might make antibodies,” The Times reported. “In fact, the level of antibodies did not differ by age or sex, and even people who had only mild symptoms produced a healthy amount.” Click.