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.
President Trump is back in the White House. Plus, will there be post-election violence?
Photo: White House
Several readers wrote in yesterday to push back on the notion that Trump or his doctors were being “evasive” about his status. In nearly every email, these readers referenced HIPAA — and Trump’s right to privacy because of it. I want to briefly address that feedback.
Yes, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, a 1996 law that protects your patient information, gives Trump a right to patient privacy just like every other American. It also means his doctors can simply tell reporters pressing for details on Trump’s status that he has asked them not to disclose certain details about his health. But that is not what happened this weekend. The team around Trump, chiefly Dr. Sean Conley, were not citing HIPAA to protect his privacy — they were giving inaccurate information, evading questions as if they were politicians, and contradicting themselves and each other. There is a marked difference.
Until yesterday, when Trump’s doctors began citing HIPAA to avoid answering questions (apparently picking up on the talking point circling now in right-wing media), they were not citing patient confidentiality to obscure the truth of Trump’s condition. Finally, I’ll add this: the only way HIPAA applies here is if Trump himself is asking for certain things not to be disclosed. For a president who claims to be the “most transparent president in U.S. history,” you’d at least expect him to keep us all apprised of how his fight against a virus that’s killed more than 210,000 Americans is going. I don’t think that’s too much to ask for, and I think Americans should demand those details.
- On Monday night, the Supreme Court sided with South Carolina Republicans and ruled that absentee ballots in the state must be signed by a witness. The court’s decision kept pre-pandemic rules in place, overruling a lower court decision, and will not invalidate ballots that have already been mailed without the signatures. Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham and Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison are battling for a Senate seat.
- Florida’s online voting registration portal crashed on Monday night, potentially overwhelmed by a late surge of voters trying to register before the midnight deadline. Democrats accused Republicans of voter suppression tactics, though the portal came back online and worked, albeit slowly, for the rest of the evening.
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) officially updated its guidance and acknowledged that the coronavirus can spread through aerosols, especially in indoor spaces that have poor ventilation. The agency had prematurely published the new guidance last month before taking it down.
- New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio are fighting over who should have control of containing a new wave of cases across the city. Cuomo rejected a publicly released plan from de Blasio, setting off confusion and anger over what the guidelines for the city are.
- The Commission on Presidential Debates granted Kamala Harris’s request for a plexiglass barrier between her, Vice President Mike Pence and the moderator of Wednesday’s debate, USA Today’s Susan Page.
What D.C. is talking about.
President Trump’s health (still). Yesterday, the president left Walter Reed hospital and returned to the White House where he will continue treatment for coronavirus. Upon returning, though, the president ignited a fresh controversy by walking up the White House portico steps, standing over the balcony, looking down at the cameras, removing his mask and declaring that he felt “good.” Then, in a Twitter video, the president urged viewers not to be afraid of the virus.
“Don’t let it dominate you,” Trump said. “Don’t be afraid of it. You’re going to beat it. We have the best medical equipment, we have the best medicines, all developed recently. And you’re going to beat it.” The president added that he “could have left two days ago” and has been telling people he feels better than he did 20 years ago.
“His remarks were strong,” the Associated Press reported. “But he was taking deeper breaths than usual as he delivered them.” The outbreak around the White House has spread quickly, and at least 30 people directly in the orbit of President Trump have tested positive in the last week, according to a Politico count. On Monday, Trump’s doctors said he was not “out of the woods” and wouldn’t be for another week, but that he did meet or exceed the requirements for discharge.
Editor’s note: This is the third consecutive newsletter related to Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis. Barring some massive news, it will be the last one this week. I understand some readers think there is something deleterious about giving this story outsized attention, and I rarely cover the same thing in back-to-back days in Tangle, but I do believe this story — and COVID-19 more generally — is big and important enough to dedicate consecutive newsletters to.
What the left is saying.
There goes any hope. Over the last few days, columnists and pundits across the country had speculated on how Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis might change his tone on the virus. Last night, we got our answer: not at all.
In HuffPost, Sanjana Karanth wrote that Trump “is also receiving top-notch medical care and treatments out of the reach of many Americans. The president had a taxpayer-funded helicopter take him to his own secluded ward of a world-class hospital, where a team of dedicated doctors exclusively monitored him around the clock, providing him pricey experimental treatments not yet available to the public free of charge.”
His comments “not only implied that those who die of COVID-19 are weak but also suggested that the American people should not fear a virus that has already infected almost 7.5 million and killed about 210,000 people in the United States this year — in part due to the president’s own dangerous rhetoric and botched response to the pandemic… Trump has repeatedly tried to deflect responsibility during the pandemic. He blamed China and Democrats for the virus, called on states with lockdowns to be ‘liberated,’ mocked the wearing of masks, promoted dangerous chemicals as miracle cures, publicly undercut his own medical advisers, failed to create a national testing strategy, forced states to make major decisions that should have been made at the federal level, and hardly played a role in negotiations over relief legislation.”
The nation as a whole “must reject Mr. Trump’s unconscionable declaration Monday” not to be afraid of COVID, The Washington Post editorial board wrote. “This disease is a fearsome killer, and Mr. Trump’s magical thinking will not change that. We had hoped that perhaps once Mr. Trump tested positive, once he was on oxygen and had to be hospitalized, he would be chastened, perhaps gaining a better understanding of the fear and anger across the country at his botched handling of the pandemic. Mr. Trump shows no sign of undergoing any such epiphany. His tweet suggests that he is returning to the tactic of happy talk that has characterized his disastrous response to the pandemic all year long.”
Eugene Robinson argued that we should all be wishing for Trump’s health, but that doesn’t mean we can’t wish for consequences, too. Robinson wants to see Trump recover, and then a landslide Democratic victory in November to prove the point of his failure.
“On a human level, we have to wish every covid-19 victim a speedy and complete recovery, including the president who claimed that ‘virtually nobody’ was affected by the virus,” Robinson wrote. “The fact that covid-19 was able to reach the most powerful man in the country, penetrating all of his layers of security and defying a White House regimen of daily testing, shows how vulnerable all of us remain to this awful scourge. Still, surrender and wishful thinking weren't our only options. The virus may not succumb to spin, but it can be slowed by the sorts of common-sense health practices the president has transformed into signifiers of Republican tribal identity.”
What the right is saying.
Mostly, there is adulation and celebration at the president’s condition being strong enough for him to come back to The White House. Politically, the feelings are mixed. Some expressed disappointment regarding Trump’s comments Monday night, while many others said his projection of strength is key to winning reelection, or pointed to those on the left who seemed disappointed that Trump was being released from the hospital.
“The American people like strength and optimism,” Republican strategist John Feehery told The Washington Examiner. “If the president can project peace and optimism, he can gain some momentum at the polls. He needs to refocus on the economy. Because that is where his real strength is.”
In National Review, Victor Davis Hanson said that in the end, “disappointed reporters were left to grumble that Trump’s use of two experimental or off-label drugs was reckless, or revealed a privilege not afforded to hoi polloi, or proved he was in extremis. They could not determine whether Trump the unscientific dunce was surrounded by quacks, or whether, given his laxity in wearing a mask, he didn’t deserve the top care he was receiving…
“Anchors, analysts, and pundits sermonized that Trump’s nemesis was a result of his hubris, of his West Wing pseudo ‘culture of invincibility’ and even ‘recklessness,’” he added. “Apparently, amid plague, forced lockdown, recession, and riots, arson, and looting, the commander in chief of the world’s largest military and economy, with the greatest political responsibility across the globe, should easily have gone into the ‘more responsible’ Joe Biden basement mode over the past six months. In the media mind, the idea of an active Trump visiting troops, talking with politicos, giving constant press conferences and ad hoc media meetings, speaking to open-air rallies and generally crisscrossing the country ‘sent the wrong message,’ especially given the apparent idea that his job responsibilities were no different from the tasks of secluded candidate Biden, speaking from a Teleprompter or reading notes on his cell phone.”
In The New York Post, Miranda Devine argued that Trump’s battle with COVID-19 projected bravery and strength — and also showed the difference between him and Biden.
“The fact is that a president doing his job and running for re-election necessarily is in contact with thousands of people. It’s not surprising he would contract the highly infectious coronavirus, regardless of precautions,” she wrote. “Biden’s timid behavior is not a model for how a president needs to behave. The obsessive measures taken to protect the 77-year-old border on fetishistic, with elaborate social distancing circles taped on the ground and masks at 20 paces. Staff yell, ‘Keep back!’ and ‘Six feet.’ If this was your grandfather, you would appreciate the caution. But a president can’t be paralyzed by fear, and neither can the country.”
The entire framing of this story seems broken, and it feels a lot like another moment of the president working the media in a way that I’ve never seen any other politician pull off.
First, the idea that the president is being “released” or “discharged” is a bit nonsensical. He’s going from Walter Reed hospital back to the White House, where he will continue to receive round-the-clock care from a team of doctors in what sounds like an isolated space. This is not your grandma going home to be around friends, family and colleagues and out of sight of medical professionals. This is not Trump’s treatment for COVID-19 ending. As his doctors said, it’ll be another week until he’s out of the woods, and he’ll be treated every day with the best drugs for COVID-19 the world has to offer.
It’s also worth considering how this all unfolded. Trump announced his exit from Walter Reed hospital at 2:30 p.m. EDT on Monday, saying he’d leave right before 7 p.m. This is no coincidence. Predictably, the cameras were rolling, every national news outlet carried it live, and he was able to triumphantly walk out, pump his fists, and declare he was feeling good in one of the most coveted news hours on television. Even if his breathing did look labored and painful, he got the primetime media slot he clearly wanted, and he got to project strength to the voters he hopes to win over.
But this is all dangerous stuff. This morning, Trump was back to tweeting about how COVID-19 is “less lethal” than the flu in most populations, one of the stupidest and most misleading arguments he was making five months ago (mortality rate is a tricky thing to calculate without proper testing, but the CDC’s best estimate puts COVID-19 at .05% and the seasonal flu at .01%, meaning COVID-19 is five times deadlier). I was actually shocked he had returned to it now, given how damaging it was for him politically then, and given how much damage COVID-19 has caused since then.
There’s a common refrain spreading now amongst pundits who try to put themselves in the “common man” or “common American” mindset and then view Trump through that lens. Those reporters and pundits, right now, are talking about how “the media” continues to misunderstand Trump’s power and are missing the story here — which is that Joe Biden is calling for mask mandates and caution and fear while Trump is calling for freedom and strength and bravery. The contrast, according to these pundits, is earning Trump favor amongst your average working-class American. But I find this kind of punditry convincing only if you spend very little time considering it.
Optimism is a powerful drug when it’s used to quell fears of far-off threats, but most Americans have now been touched by COVID-19. Half of all Americans say they know someone who was infected. Nearly all Americans have at one point or another had their jobs or daily lives upended by the virus. 200,000 people have died. The actual working-class Americans closest to Trump — the staff who clean the White House or bring him his meals — are now going to be in harm’s way (and some are already seeing positive test results). Reporters in the White House press pool are now testing positive, as are members of their families. Essential workers have never had the opportunity to go hide at home. They’ve been exemplifying the “bravery” Trump and his allies are now touting, except they didn’t brag about how brave they were for showing up to work, or get a round of applause from a band of primetime television hosts and columnists when they did.
I think Trump had an opportunity yesterday to set a responsible example for the nation, and he squandered it. Nobody is silly enough to imagine they will get the same treatment a president does, and anyone who was worried about this virus a week ago is not going to believe that Trump recovering quickly means they will, too. The people who will love it are already in love with the president, but this attitude doesn’t broaden his appeal at all. Americans may love strength and bravado and bravery but they aren’t rubes — and Trump continues to turn in terrible numbers on his handling of COVID-19. If that doesn’t change, his poll numbers, which have noticeably worsened in the last two weeks, won’t get any better before election day.
Your questions, answered.
Q: With Trump refusing to confirm a peaceful transfer of power, his efforts to impede ballots from being counted, and his incitement of far-right groups like the Proud Boys, the fear of violence after election night is higher than it ever should be in the United States. What do you think about the potential for violence as a direct result of the outcome of the election, whether that's election night or days/weeks later when the votes are finally tallied? What can be done to prepare against this happening, and if it does, what should people do about it?
— Jorge, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Tangle: If you had asked me this last week, I would have said that I thought the potential for violence after election night is relatively low — at least in the widespread sense. I think the most concerning thing I’ve read related to this was included in the numbers section of a Tangle newsletter on Friday, which was a poll showing a healthy chunk of Republicans and Democrats saying they would find violence at least a “little bit acceptable” in response to the other side winning.
To me, there are two potential outcomes here that seem likely enough for me to speculate on. The first is if Trump wins, especially in a close election where hundreds of thousands of mail-in ballots are thrown out, I believe widespread civil unrest is almost certain. After the 2016 election, marches broke out across the U.S., eventually culminating in the historic Women’s March in Washington D.C. and across the country, which some estimate five million people participated in.
Those marches were remarkably peaceful, carried on almost entirely without incident. A lot of people forget that now. But I don’t think the response to a Trump victory in 2020 would be nearly as tempered. Looting and clashes with police as we’ve seen at various points this summer seem guaranteed to me. There is so much built up angst and rage toward the president right now, and I do think if he were to win again — especially in a contested election — people would hit the streets and the president would try to “quell” that unrest with force, which would almost certainly lead to some very dangerous incidents.
On the whole, though, I think those protests would be largely peaceful and devolve into pockets of property destruction and clashes with police. The actual violence between people — deaths, assaults, serious injuries, that sort of thing — seems unlikely in any kind of uncontained way.
If Biden wins, there are a lot of unpredictable outcomes. Trump would obviously contest the election and tell his supporters it was rigged and he was robbed. He’s already doing that now before results are even tallied, assuring his supporters that the only way they lose the election is if it is stolen. This is a disastrous framework to set up and, for Trump’s most loyal supporters, I imagine the only way it ends would be with them protesting the results.
The question is what does that protest look like. We’ve seen civil unrest from the left all summer, and civil unrest in the wake of a Trump win is easy to imagine. In the wake of a Biden win, I think it’ll be one of two extremes: either the fight or contestation will take place largely online and via Facebook, or it will pour out onto the streets in the form of armed Americans marching to government building in their states or into Washington D.C. to protest the results. In other words: I think protests or unrest are guaranteed in the streets if Trump wins, but I think it could go either way if Biden wins.
However, if those pro-Trump, anti-Biden protests happen offline, I imagine they will be far more dangerous than what we saw this summer. Those protesters are more likely to be heavily armed. They will also be taking direction from Trump, who has shown no signs that he would plead for them to accept the results and stay calm. On the contrary, I think it’s likely he’d egg them on by insisting the results were fraudulent.
Preparing for either outcome is tricky. My suggestion is always to handle this stuff locally as best you can. Talk to friends, family members, colleagues and anyone else you imagine might be prone to act violently or radically if their “side” loses. Preach calm to them, call out conspiracies, encourage peaceful demonstration if they want to demonstrate, and so on. And prepare for a longer-than-usual election day. Much has been made about the “red mirage” — where the in-person voting results are counted first and show Trump leading, while mail-in ballots break for Biden in the days after the election — and I think that outcome is possible, if not likely.
Mitigating misinformation online and in your particular social circles during that time is probably the best way you can help, but ultimately much of it will fall on the leaders themselves — Biden and Trump — and their willingness to accept the results and call for calm. That may not be the most encouraging response, but it’s the one that feels most honest to me.
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A story that matters.
Pandemic-related budget cuts are already beginning to take their toll on Americans. “The months of Americans traveling less because of the coronavirus pandemic — whether by road, rail or air — have left states and localities that rely on gasoline taxes, fare revenue and user fees to fund their budgets facing billions in shortfalls,” The Washington Post reported. As result, many Americans can expect to see fewer pothole repairs, longer waits for trains and busses and worse traffic with renovation projects on hold. In Maryland alone, the state is proposing to cut $900 million in road projects and a $500 million project to renovate the Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport.
- 21%. The percentage of Americans who said they’d be more likely to wear a mask in the wake of President Trump’s COVID-19 infection, according to an Axios/Ipsos poll.
- 2%. The percentage of Americans who said they’d be less likely to wear a mask in the wake of President Trump’s COVID-19 infection, according to an Axios/Ipsos poll.
- 1%. The percentage of registered voters who think Trump has overreacted to the actual risks of COVID-19.
- 31%. The percentage of registered voters who think Trump has behaved appropriately in relation to risks of COVID-19.
- 59%. The percentage of registered voters who think Trump has underestimated the risks of COVID-19.
- 9%. The percentage of registered voters who said President Trump contracting COVID-19 made them more likely to vote by mail in the November election.
- 40%. The percentage of registered voters who think Joe Biden is more likely to win the election.
- 40%. The percentage of registered voters who think Donald Trump is more likely to win the election.
- 20%. The percentage of registered voters who think the candidates are equally likely to win the election.
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