The Postal Service chaos gets worse.

It's a story gripping the entire country.
Isaac Saul Aug 17, 2020
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Today’s read: 13 minutes.

The Postal Service story is taking the country by storm. Today, we’re skipping the reader question to give this story some extra attention.

Photo: Tony Webster from San Francisco, California

Quick hits.

  1. President Trump’s younger brother Robert died at the age of 71 on Saturday. The president made a last-minute trip to New York on Friday to see Robert and reportedly phoned his hospital room Saturday when it became clear his death was imminent. "It is with heavy heart I share that my wonderful brother, Robert [age 71], peacefully passed away tonight. He was not just my brother, he was my best friend. He will be greatly missed, but we will meet again. His memory will live on in my heart forever. Robert, I love you."
  2. Former FBI lawyer Kevin Clinesmith plans to plead guilty to making a false statement during the investigation into ties between Russia and the 2016 Trump campaign. The plea is one of the first criminal cases arising from U.S. attorney John Durham’s investigation and is a major win for Trump and his allies, who have long claimed the investigation was marred by FBI malpractice. Clinesmith is accused “of altering a government email about a former Trump campaign adviser who was a target of secret FBI surveillance.” However, the five-page document “is limited in scope and does not allege criminal wrongdoing by anyone other than Clinesmith, nor does it offer evidence to support Trump’s assertions that the Russia probe was tainted by widespread political bias in the FBI,” the AP reported.
  3. Former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen released the forward of his upcoming book on Friday. Cohen, who worked for Trump for nearly a decade, claims to know the president better than members of Trump’s own family do. He describes Trump as a “mob boss” who “wouldn’t mind if I was dead” and claims he created a “secret backchannel” to Putin while also being tasked with lying to Melania Trump about the president’s infidelities. Cohen is currently finishing the last two years of a three-year prison sentence from home after being convicted of tax fraud and lying to Congress.
  4. There was another tense weekend of sporadic violence and protests in a few U.S. cities facing continued unrest. A graphic video showed Portland protesters brutally beating a driver after they said he tried to drive through the protesters. 18 people were arrested in Seattle after police say a peaceful protest devolved into a riot and someone in the crowd “set off a large explosive.” In New York City, two more people were killed in overnight gunfire after more than 40 were shot over the weekend.
  5. The Trump administration is planning to approve an oil leasing program in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, opening up 19 million acres of pristine wilderness to oil drilling for the first time. The plans would be difficult to unwind even if a Democratic administration took control of the White House in November, The Wall Street Journal reports. Environmentalists are sounding the alarm and vowing to challenge the plans in court. “I have a remarkable degree of confidence that this can be done in a way that is responsible, sustainable and environmentally benign,” Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said. Oil companies and Alaskan leaders have been working for 30 years to open the area for drilling.
  6. BONUS: The Democratic National Convention kicks off today. The virtual event will hit the web from 9pm to 11pm EST every day this week, being capped off Thursday night with an address from nominee Joe Biden. Tonight, Michelle Obama, Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar, Andrew Cuomo and Gretchen Whitmer are all scheduled to speak. The convention will include self-recorded videos from Americans across the country, including Republicans declaring support for Joe Biden. The Republican National Convention begins next week.

What D.C. is talking about.

The Postal Service. Unless you lack internet or cell service, there’s a good chance you’ve heard about this by now. Over the weekend, the United States Postal Service began warning states that it cannot guarantee all ballots that are cast by mail in November will arrive in time to be counted, even if voters follow state guidelines. That’s a big deal, since a lot of votes are expected to be sent by mail.

The USPS’s statement turned a burning concern about the November election into a five-alarm, front-page news fire. The warning came amid reports of sorting machines being removed from USPS offices and citizens posting photos of collection boxes being removed in their neighborhoods across the country.

Spokespeople for the Postal Service have said the mailbox removals were part of standard procedures due to a decline in first-class mail volume. Between 2011 and 2015, for example, the Postal Service says 12,000 boxes were removed over a five year period. Even less mail is being sent and delivered now because of the pandemic, and the collection box removals are part of cost-cutting efforts that have been underway for a decade.

But the changes have caused a political firestorm.

For one, President Donald Trump helped install the current Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a logistics expert and longtime Republican donor who gave money to the Trump campaign, just three months ago. Since DeJoy took over, he has put in place changes that include “prohibiting overtime pay, shutting down sorting machines early and requiring letter carriers to leave mail behind when necessary, to avoid extra trips or late delivery on routes,” according to a July report. DeJoy, who helped build a successful trucking company, was put in place to help make the USPS profitable.

Two, the president himself said on national television that he opposed $25 billion of emergency aid for the Postal Service to ramp up for an expansion of mail-in voting, which he’s repeatedly claimed would cause widespread voter fraud. There is no evidence for this claim, as several U.S. states have had mail-in voting for years without any significant issues of voter fraud. “They need that money in order to make the post office work, so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots,” Trump said. “If we don’t make a deal, that means they don’t get the money. That means they can’t have universal mail-in voting. They just can’t have it.”

Then Trump seemingly backtracked on those comments, insisting he would not veto funding for the Postal Service if Democrats and Republicans passed a standalone bill.

Three, the Postal Service is one of the few things left in America that’s critical to just about everyone. And, at 91%, its approval rating is higher than any branch of government by a country mile, according to an April Pew research study. USPS handles everything from birthday cards to diabetes medicine, and it is the only shipping option for many Americans living in our most rural areas. In November, it's expected to handle a huge surge in mail-in balloting so people can avoid going to crowded polling places during a pandemic. After Trump’s comments and the Postal Service warnings, reports of the potential mail-in ballot delays were published on the front page of nearly every major local newspaper across the country this weekend.

On Sunday, House Oversight Chair Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) responded by calling DeJoy to "an urgent hearing" on August 24 and Nancy Pelosi called Democrats in Congress back to D.C., setting up a showdown over the Postal Service controversy.


What the left is saying.

A disaster could be coming, and Trump is actively working to make it worse. This entire thing is based on a lie of widespread fraud in mail-in voting, David Axelrod wrote in CNN. Remember: “In 2016, Trump dismissed his 3 million popular-vote loss to Hillary Clinton with similar nonsense. A presidential panel he commissioned to investigate found no evidence to support such assertions. Now Trump, trailing in the polls, is pre-spinning the election results, setting up what could be a winter of litigation and turmoil centered around the counting of mail-in ballots.”

In New York Magazine, Ed Kilgore pointed out that 80% of Trump supporters plan to vote in person while 58% of Biden supporters say they will vote by mail. Trump’s calculation here is not complicated — and his plan for an election day nightmare is well underway.

“If these numbers are even close to reality, since in-person votes are generally counted before mail ballots, Trump will be in a position to take an early lead nationally and in most battleground states,” Kilgore wrote. “Any appearance of a pro-Biden trend later, or for that matter any logjam or other problems with counting mail ballots, will undoubtedly be touted by Team Trump as evidence of fraud.”

USA Today’s editorial board insisted the U.S. Postal Service can handle the election, the only question is how fast.

“Stricken with its own COVID-19 casualties (75 dead, 8,100 infected and 44,000 quarantined), the Postal Service is short on manpower and losing cash from a downturn in first-class mail,” the board wrote. “Belt-tightening is one thing, but DeJoy should suspend his cost-cutting at least the week leading up to the election to guard against last minute bottlenecks.”

For Democrats, Trump’s decision to go after the Postal Service is handing them a new campaign issue. The people being hurt most by a slowdown at the Postal Service aren’t just voters planning to cast a ballot for Joe Biden: they’re senior citizens, rural residents, and military veterans, awaiting medicine and benefit payments the USPS routinely delivers. The USPS’s 91% approval rating has motivated Democrats to begin “blanketing the airwaves” with advertisements about the Postal Service, The Washington Post reports.

Former Navy Admiral William H. McRaven wrote in The Washington Post that Trump is trying to undermine every major U.S. institution — creating an environment where Americans can’t trust anything or anyone but the president himself. Now, he’s trying to take away our voice on who will lead America.

“It is not hyperbole to say that the future of the country could depend on those remarkable men and women who brave the elements to bring us our mail and deliver our vote,” McRaven said. “Let us ensure they have every resource possible to provide the citizens of this country the information they need, the ballots that they request and the Postal Service they deserve.”


What the right is saying.

The Postal Service has a lot of problems, but none of them are Trump. The Wall Street Journal editorial board called Trump’s comments about funding the USPS “foolish” but insisted it needs an overhaul. The USPS has been in the red for years, losing $78 billion since 2007 and as much as $2.2 billion last quarter. And that’s why DeJoy was tapped: because someone needs to come in and fix a service that is bleeding money.

“News articles call Mr. DeJoy a Trump donor, sometimes a ‘megadonor,’ as if he were a political hack with no relevant experience,” the paper said. “According to a profile in the Charlotte Observer, Mr. DeJoy built a trucking company from 10 employees in 1983 to almost 7,000 in 2014. After it was purchased by XPO Logistics, he stayed on as CEO of that company’s North America supply-chain business.”

“If you want to watch a Congressman flip out, suggest closing a rural post office in his district,” the board added. “The USPS’s workforce, more than 600,000 people, is organized by seven different unions, which make their influence felt. The sorry result is that Congress has continued to mandate six-day service, quashing a USPS attempt in 2013 to save $2 billion a year by stopping Saturday delivery for regular mail, but not packages. As if that weren’t enough: The USPS’s price increases on letters and junk mail are generally capped at the rate of inflation.”

David Williams and Thomas Marshall, who run logistics, processing and general counsel at the Postal Service, penned an op-ed in USA Today dismissing the media narrative. Instead, Williams and Marshall said the Postal Service’s warnings to states were meant to implore them to “realistically consider how the mail works” and “be mindful of our delivery standards” all “in order to provide voters ample time to cast their votes through the mail.”

“The U.S. Postal Service is well prepared and has ample capacity to deliver America’s election mail for the upcoming general election in November,” they wrote. “On any given day, the Postal Service delivers more than 425 million pieces of mail, and our best estimates are that election mail will account for less than 2% of all mail volume from mid-September until Election Day.”

The Postal Service may enjoy high approval ratings, but that doesn’t mean the organization doesn’t need changes. Tobias Hoonhout pointed out that most news articles are completely ignoring the “damning audit” conducted by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), a nonpartisan group that released a report on the USPS in May. Meanwhile, Democrats have resisted any calls for cost-saving efforts which would make the organization more sustainable — even though the GAO says its financials are “increasingly in peril.” Hoonhout also notes that “DeJoy is not an appointee of the president, as that authority does not fall under presidential purview.”

In Reason, Nick Gillespie said: “Don’t blame Donald Trump if the Post Office loses your vote.”

“Even if all voters used the mail and posted their ballots on exactly the same day, that would comprise only 30 percent of the amount of mail the USPS says it processes every single day,” Gillespie wrote. “So if the USPS screws up delivering votes in a timely and efficient manner this fall, it won't be because of any sinister actions by the White House. It will be because of longstanding, well-documented managerial and cultural problems that gave rise to such stock portrayals of letter carriers as Seinfeld's Newman and Cheers' Cliff Clavin.”


My take.

In the week leading up to Christmas, the Postal Service will process more than 3 billion pieces of mail. On any given day, it can process about 500 million pieces of mail. If every single one of the 150 million registered voters decided to vote by mail over the course of a few weeks, the USPS would — conceivably — be well equipped to get the job done.

It’s also true that the Democratic framing of this issue borders on conspiratorial and in some cases has devolved into actual conspiracies: DeJoy is not just a “Trump donor” or a Republican mega-donor (he has given millions to Republicans and to Trump, and is well-known for his political fundraising abilities). Unlike many other Trump appointees, he was neither appointed by Trump, nor is he unqualified for the job: he took over his father’s trucking company when it was on the brink of bankruptcy with just 10 employees and five trucks in 1983, and turned it into a nationwide logistics business success that sold for $615 million in 2014 — including years of working with the Postal Service as a partner. DeJoy demonstrably has the chops for the job he’s been given.

It’s also true that DeJoy is taking over a service with a fundamentally broken business model. There’s a larger debate about whether the Postal Service should be considered a business or whether it needs to be profitable, but I don’t know how you’d describe anything that loses $2 billion in a single quarter as functioning properly. The Postal Service has been losing money for decades. The 671 documented mailbox removals since June are unlikely to make much more of a difference than the 12,000 removals that occurred during the Obama administration over a five-year span from 2011 to 2015.

Neither were diabolical plots to disrupt an election. They’re a reflection of the fact that mail volume is down 33% since 2006 — and with it, the money the USPS makes from moving mail across the country.

So that’s the reassuring news.

The bad news is that there are other, more worrisome changes DeJoy is making — many of which are easy to connect to a potential election disruption ploy. For one, the simple fact DeJoy is making these changes now, and not after a historic mail-in election, raises red flags, as well it should.

Two, one of the most impactful changes is a directive to Postal Service workers to leave behind mail at the post office and reduce the number of trips between the post office, collection boxes and people’s homes. One union official told The Atlantic this is a sea change for workers and goes against their training that “when the mail comes in, the mail goes out.” It also seems to be creating widespread anger in the workforce over policy changes that make carriers look bad by slowing delivery service so badly.

As frightening as images of collection boxes being removed may look, this directive alone could be responsible for the delays in mail delivery popping up across the U.S. right now. The goal, according to postal workers and union reps, seems aimed at reducing overtime. Currently, if a worker is out delivering mail but knows they haven’t hit a few collection boxes for delivery, they’ll simply work into overtime. DeJoy is telling those workers to clock out and deal with it the next day. That’s at a time when 40,000 Postal Service workers have been quarantined due to COVID-19.

And then there’s the Trump-DeJoy relationship. Yes, it’s true that Trump did not technically appoint DeJoy. It’s also true that Trump did appoint the Board of Governors who tapped DeJoy for the job in May. And it’s true that DeJoy is the guy Trump wanted. Also true is that Trump, DeJoy and Republican leadership have been meeting regularly at the White House over the last few months, while these changes and reports of slowed mail delivery began popping up. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination or intellect to connect the dots here.

Which brings me to the president. At this point, there’s a fair debate about the long-term health of the Postal Service, the economics of it and whether the changes DeJoy is implementing will have a long-term positive impact once postal workers adjust to them. But there is no debate — none — about what Trump’s intention is.

The president, for years, has repeatedly said the most damning and revealing things while speaking with “friendly” interviewers like Fox News hosts or conservative radio moguls. You don’t have to dig into leaked memos, Postal Service finances or DeJoy’s backstory to understand Trump’s plans. You just have to listen to his rationale in his own words. Jonathan Swan, who made national news for how he questioned Trump in an HBO exclusive interview recently, joked on Twitter that he’d been working sources for weeks on Trump’s motives behind refusing to fund the Postal Service, when the president just… said it out loud on national television.

“They need that money in order for the Post Office to work, to take in these millions and millions of ballots,” Trump told Fox Business’s Maria Bartiromo. “If we don’t make a deal, that means they don’t get the money. That means they can’t have universal mail-in voting. That means they can’t have it.”

At this point, anyone denying Trump’s goal has lost all credibility in my eyes. Few things, in my opinion, have disqualified him more for the office he holds than his comments about the upcoming election — from floating the idea of delaying it (which he can’t do), to admitting he’s holding up funding to the Postal Service to limit mail-in voting (which will hurt and disenfranchise millions of people), to his continuation of voter fraud claims, despite the fact that he launched his own voting fraud commission in 2017 that turned up no evidence of any significant voter fraud and disbanded in embarrassing fashion soon thereafter.

And make no mistake: the president understands what’s going on. His comments to Bartiromo came after his meeting with DeJoy. Trump’s new chief of staff, Mark Meadows, is a well-known expert on the USPS, having sat on the committee that conducted oversight of the Postal Service for years as a member of Congress.

This is one of those situations where it’s also worth delineating the president from the party he leads. Republicans in the Senate like Susan Collins and Mitt Romney have rallied behind a bill that includes $25 billion of aid to the Postal Service, and they’re getting some traction. Once Trump’s comments on Fox Business blew up, he also seemed to backtrack a bit, claiming he’d sign a bill that funded the Postal Service if Congress passed something.

And Congress can act. Nancy Pelosi is bringing House Democrats back from recess early to address the USPS. Democrats have called DeJoy to come testify and answer questions under oath. I hope he accepts their invitation and actually shows up. House Democrats and Senate Republicans can negotiate to pass a bill that infuses the USPS with money — funds that can keep collection boxes in place, suspend the removal of sorting machines, and leave overtime in play, at least for now.

Some of DeJoy’s cost-cutting changes are needed, no doubt. He knows more about how to turn a shipping company around than I do, and I wouldn’t pretend otherwise. But we’re in the middle of a global pandemic, a massive economic disruption and what will be a historically high-volume mail-in election. The singular focus for the USPS should be ensuring that Americans are getting medicine, checks and ballots in a timely fashion through November. Regardless of how these changes may impact service in the long-term, the delays in mail going on now are not figments of our imagination — they’re being documented across the country. And they’re completely unacceptable.

Finally, and given the gravity of this story, this is also a rare situation where I feel compelled to chime in on what we can do as citizens. This is not a partisan take: it’s built on what DeJoy himself, experts on the Postal Service and Postal Service unions have all said: get your ballots in as early as possible. It doesn’t matter who you’re voting for, just don’t wait until the last moment if you want your vote to be counted. If you are concerned about coronavirus and voting in person, request a ballot now and send it in as soon as your state allows. That’s the easiest way to ensure your vote will be counted.

If you’re young and healthy, consider voting in person. That’s my plan (both as a citizen and as a reporter, I’m curious to see what in-person voting will look like). Even better, consider volunteering at a polling place. Historically speaking, the people running polling stations are in the age group that’s most at-risk for serious illness from COVID-19. Many of them are likely to sit this year’s election out. We need polling places open and polling workers present to make sure the election goes smoothly, and younger Americans who have traditionally taken a back seat can and should step up now, when it really matters.

This election will be historic, both for its implications on the future and the chaos that it surely will usher in. But unlike so many other things about politics, Congress and our country, individual citizens have a unique, first-line-of-defense control over what will happen in November. We can all do our part to make the election run a bit smoother, and we should all get behind individual actions to improve the collective way our democracy will function.


Time machine.

Today, the DNC convention kicks off. It will be an all remote affair with speeches broadcast on the internet and television. Very few (if any) people will be in person together in any kind of group. Which got some people thinking about how much things have changed. Check out this clip from 1996, including a young Hillary Clinton and the macarena dance.


A story that matters.

Democrats and Donald Trump are now fighting for two distinct groups: “Biden Republicans” and the so-called “suburban voters.” Former Chicago mayor and Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that “Democrats have the chance to achieve a generational transformation. Beyond broadening the coalition to include moderate voters who oppose President Trump, we could deepen our base by turning disaffected Republicans into Democrats.”

Less than 48 hours later, Donald Trump and Ben Carson co-wrote their own op-ed claiming “We’ll protect America’s suburbs.” In spite of the remarkable success of ending redlining, which has led to African-Americans, Hispanics and Asian Americans moving to suburban areas, the left is creating “a relentless push for more high-density housing in single-family residential neighborhoods,” Trump and Carson wrote.

These two competing narratives are becoming an overarching theme of 2020 — and will be crucial to the election outcome. Democrats and Joe Biden are selling themselves as an alternative to a dysfunctional, unacceptable president to moderates and Republicans in the suburbs. Trump and the Trump campaign are claiming Democrats want to fundamentally change what suburban neighborhoods look and feel like. Keep an eye on this messaging battle as 2020 approaches, because it matters.


Numbers.

  • 50-46. The percentage of registered voters who said they’d vote for Joe Biden, Kamala Harris and Democrats over Donald Trump, Mike Pence and Republicans, according to a new CNN poll.
  • 1. Joe Biden, Kamala Harris and Democrats’ lead over Donald Trump, Mike Pence and Republicans amongst registered independent voters, according to the latest CNN poll.
  • 3%. The percentage of Hispanic or Latino Americans who use the gender-neutral, pan-ethnic label “Latinx” to describe themselves.
  • 23%. The percentage of Hispanic or Latino Americans who said they had ever heard the term “Latinx” before.
  • 4 million. The number of Indian Americans in the United States.
  • 117%. The percentage growth of eligible Asian American and Pacific Islander voters between 2000 and 2018 in Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Georgia and Texas.
  • 25%. The percentage of U.S. adults who say neither Biden nor Trump would be a good president.
  • 5%. The percentage of U.S. adults who say both Biden and Trump would be good presidents.
  • 52%. The percentage of U.S. adults who say they are “thriving.”

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Have a nice day.

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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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