Trump threatens to veto NDAA.

Plus, why didn't we buy more Pfizer vaccine?
Isaac Saul Dec 9, 2020
I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then “my take.” You can read Tangle for free, subscribe for Friday editions and you can reach me anytime by replying to this email. If someone sent you this email, they’re asking you to sign up. You can do that by clicking here.

Today’s read: 11 minutes.

Trump threatens to veto a defense spending bill, another correction, a question about the COVID-19 vaccine and a fox in the wild.

U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III (right), commander of the XVIII Airborne Corps, who was recently nominated to be defense secretary. DoD photo by Spc. Nicholas A. Hernandez U.S. Army. (www.army.mil

Correction.

In my response to yesterday’s reader question, I wrote that “Dwight Eisenhower expanded social security and raised the minimum wage in the wake of Lyndon Johnson’s civil rights work.” That would have been a pretty remarkable feat, given that Dwight Eisenhower served two years before Johnson was president. I’m going to be honest: I’m not sure what happened there. I had written up a few examples of presidents picking up on the legacy of an opposition party predecessor, and in whittling it down I must have mixed something up. It should have noted that Eisenhower, a Republican, expanded social security and raised the minimum wage in the wake of the Democrats' New Deal (led by Franklin Roosevelt, who was followed by Democrat Harry Truman before Eisenhower became president).

Anyway, I blame my editors. And all of you for not being rubes. I thought rewriting history was allowed in politics?

This is the 23rd Tangle correction in its 67-week existence and the third correction in a row, a new Tangle record (go me!). I track corrections in an effort to be transparent and very much wish I didn’t on a day like today.


Merch.

Many of you have been asking about shirts, mugs, stickers, etc. — I have good news: the merch is coming. Unfortunately, it’s looking like t-shirts will be the only thing up and available before the holidays, but I’m very excited to roll them out and then follow suit with mugs, stickers and some other stuff in January. Going forward, I’m hoping to make all sorts of fun Tangle swag part of the offering here. In the meantime, if you’re looking for a holiday gift, did you know you can “gift” Tangle to someone? It’s a really kind way to send a passive-aggressive message that you think a friend or uncle should do more than just watch MSNBC or Fox News.

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Quick hits.

  1. The Supreme Court rejected a challenge to the presidential results in Pennsylvania yesterday, issuing a one-sentence decision with no recorded dissents.
  2. Former Department of Homeland Security official Chris Krebs, who was fired after publicly stating the 2020 election was the most secure in history, is suing Trump campaign lawyer Joe diGenova and Newsmax media for defamation, emotional distress and conspiracy.
  3. The U.S. Army fired or suspended 14 high ranking officers and officials after an investigation uncovered “major flaws” at Fort Hood and a command climate “that was permissive of sexual harassment and sexual assault.”
  4. President-elect Joe Biden has chosen Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH) to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development. When Fudge leaves Congress, Democrats will have 220 seats in the House, just five seats more than Republicans and the slimmest majority since 2001.
  5. The White House has offered Democrats a $916 billion COVID-19 relief bill that includes money for state and local governments, direct payments to Americans, funding for the Paycheck Protection program, a bailout for airlines and funding for vaccines and testing. There are no new enhanced unemployment benefits, but it extends the expiring provisions.
  6. President Trump’s lawyer Jenna Ellis has informed associates that she tested positive for coronavirus, just days after Rudy Giuliani was hospitalized with COVID-19.

A year ago…

We were talking about a Saudi Air Force trainee killing three U.S. Navy sailors in Florida, the growing Democratic field in the primary and a trove of documents from Afghanistan showing the U.S. government was lying about the progress of the war.


What D.C. is talking about.

The National Defense Authorization Act. Yesterday, the House of Representatives approved a $740.5 billion annual defense spending bill, despite President Donald Trump threatening to veto it. The bill passed 335-78, well above the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto by Trump. The bill now goes to the Senate, where it will also need to pass with a two-thirds majority to avoid a veto.

President Trump’s threatened veto is because he wants language included to terminate Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which gives social media companies immunity for content users publish on their platforms. Trump, as well as some Democrats and Republicans, has called for revising Section 230 in an effort to hold social media companies responsible for any content posted on their platforms. Many Republicans insist the current law allows censorship of conservative voices. Many Democrats say it allows misinformation to spread with no consequences.

The president has also insisted Congress remove language that is going to create a commission to rename military installations and monuments honoring Confederate commanders. The bill also prohibits troop reductions in Afghanistan, Germany and South Korea without significant justification to Congress.

“I hope House Republicans will vote against the very weak National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which I will VETO,” Mr. Trump tweeted on Tuesday. He also said the bill must “allow for 5G & troupe [sic] reductions in foreign lands!”

In July, a Senate version of the bill passed 86-14. The NDAA has been passed on a bipartisan basis for 59 years in a row. At the end of October, Tangle covered Section 230 and the arguments for repealing or replacing it. Today’s edition will touch on those issues, along with the specific ramifications of vetoing the NDAA.


What the right is saying.

The right is supportive of Section 230 reforms, but is critical of Trump for trying to make changes by vetoing a critical military spending bill with no relevance to Section 230.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board said “Trump deserves credit for rebuilding America’s armed forces,” but it’s “a pity his parting shot is a veto spectacle over a defense policy bill.”

“This year’s iteration includes several good provisions toughening U.S. China policy. One establishes a Pacific Deterrence Initiative that authorizes $2.2 billion for, among other things, putting more military assets in China’s backyard and conducting exercises with allies,” they wrote. “The bill also authorizes programs for overhauling an aging nuclear deterrent, a Trump priority… Section 230 might deserve some limits given how broadly courts have interpreted its liability protections, as Justice Clarence Thomas recently argued. But eliminating it could have major economic consequences that Congress might later regret, and this shouldn’t be rushed through with only token debate.”

In the American Conservative, Julius Krein argued that Trump was a “transitional president,” and never escaped the traditional Republican orthodoxy, often resulting in “self-contradictory and incoherent” policy. Krein argues that the upside of Trump’s fight over Section 230 is that “skepticism of the tech companies has increased across the political spectrum since Trump entered office,” but Trump’s policy record “is more complicated.”

“Trump signed the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act in 2018, which curbed 230 protections on content that violates sex trafficking laws,” he wrote. “In 2020, Trump’s FCC also indicated that it would begin exercising its authority to ‘interpret’ Section 230, though the significance of any potential FCC intervention is still unclear. Finally, in December 2020, Trump threatened to veto the National Defense Authorization Act if Section 230 was not repealed…”

“In truth, after four years, most of the administration’s tough talk has amounted to little more than—ironically—tweets,” he said. “Today, the Big Tech firms are larger and stronger than ever, especially in the wake of COVID-19’s devastation of many small businesses. Even on the question of censorship—the issue of greatest concern to most Republican politicians—the power of the social media platforms has increased dramatically since Trump was elected, to the point of censoring the president’s own social media accounts with impunity… As long as this is the case, it will be difficult to view Republican criticism of Big Tech—which has proven remarkably malleable—as anything more than theatre.”


What the left is saying.

The left has criticized the veto threat, arguing that it’s a bizarre and useless crusade that will only end up embarrassing the president. The Washington Post editorial board called Trump’s attacks on the bill “ridiculous” and “dangerous,” arguing that there are plenty of things to dislike about the NDAA — but Trump is focused on something that has “next to nothing to do with the NDAA’s text or even with national defense.”

“Section 230, or ‘the very dangerous & unfair Section 230,’ as the president put it, protects Internet sites from liability for the content posted by their users — whether that content consists of tweets or comments on a restaurant review aggregator,” the board said. “This protection was designed to encourage platforms to permit robust expression as well as to design prohibitions as they pleased — each without risking being treated as publishers. While there’s room for reform on its finer points, it is overall a distinctly American and generally constructive formulation. Whereas Mr. Trump’s war on Section 230, waged out of pique that platforms are exercising their First Amendment right to label his lies, runs distinctly counter to the principles embodied in the Constitution.”

On the technology website Gizmodo, Rhett Jones argued that Section 230 is being “bastardized by opportunists and well-meaning people who simply misunderstand it.” He cited the 26 words that actually make up the law:

No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.

“At its most basic level, Section 230 is intended to shield a web platform like Facebook or Twitter from legal liability for the content uploaded by a third-party user. There are still legal limits. For instance, Facebook can’t knowingly leave up images of child exploitation on its website,” he wrote. “Repeal Section 230 with nothing in its place and most websites would need to put a halt to the uploading of third-party content or at least severely limit the practice because the legal risks would be too great. Facebook and Twitter might find a way to keep going, but say goodbye to [the] rest…

“All of this is to say that repealing Section 230 isn’t what the business interests behind Republican or Democrat donors want to see,” he added. “Competing interests certainly have different ideas for how to change the law to benefit themselves, but a sudden repeal is not only unwanted but practically impossible. Still, it’s clear that Section 230 has been successfully defined to some group of the public as the thing that allows Twitter to CENSOR posts with fact-checking labels, and if we get rid of it, these people believe that the internet would just become a First Amendment zone where nothing is censored. The reality is quite the opposite.”


My take.

It’s hard to make any sense of what Trump is thinking here. The NDAA bill passed the House with a veto-proof majority — and I suspect will pass in the Senate with similar margins — despite its flaws. Trump, who has at times championed an America First attitude centered on bringing troops home and spending more money domestically than abroad, could easily make a case for slapping the bill down on those grounds. The $740.5 billion is more than most Republicans would approve for the newest wave of COVID-19 relief, yet this bill is going to pass with virtually no pressure or drama.

It also has $2 billion just to send more military assets into “China’s backyard,” as The Wall Street Journal put it, and it prohibits the president from reducing troop levels in Afghanistan. The military is the most bloated, wasteful and costly segment of the federal budget, and even a president who has dedicated himself to “rebuilding” it could make an argument for more discretion than is in the NDAA. I’d certainly support such an argument.

And yet… Trump is refusing to sign it over an absurd demand that the bill include language repealing Section 230, which will never happen. He’s also stated his unwillingness to allow a program to rename military bases and monuments dedicated to Confederate soldiers, which I’ve argued in the past is something the military should do. It’s an important step forward — not just because of the racial tension such honorifics create (which, alone, is enough), but because these Confederate generals were traitors to the United States.

There’s also a lot of good in this NDAA. It updates U.S. anti-money-laundering rules to make companies register their true owners. It limits the money that can be reallocated in emergency military construction, meaning Trump could no longer repurpose military funds for a border wall (something that never should have been allowed without Congressional approval in the first place). It adds Parkinson’s and bladder cancer, among others, to the presumptive list of effects of Agent Orange, meaning 34,000 veterans will finally get access to previously unavailable VA care and benefits if they were exposed to the toxic herbicide the U.S. used in Vietnam. It also requires law enforcement officers and members of the Armed Forces to clearly identify themselves and their agency by uniform if they’re operating in crowd control or arresting citizens involved in domestic U.S. civil disobedience.

It’s likely one or more of these provisions is the real reason Trump is opposing the bill — I’m not sure. But his stated reasons are self-defeating. Not only is he undermining his own mission to beef up military funding, he’s also jeopardizing the bonus pay for soldiers, funding for schools that educate military children, and pay for Defense Department civilian employees. All for a Section 230 crusade that already has bipartisan support for reforms outside of this bill. Ironically, the consensus that Section 230 needed reforming has basically evaporated in the wake of this attempt to reform it by forcing language into the NDAA. Trump has lost the upper hand by going this route.

Again: It’s unclear what the play is here. If Trump wanted the NDAA to change, the time to lobby for those changes was last summer. If he wanted to reform Section 230, he should have proposed a standalone bill at some point in the last four years. Now, if he follows through on his threat to veto the bill, one of his final acts as president will be to watch the Republican-led Senate pass it anyway, with a veto-proof majority.


Your blindspot.

As part of a partnership with Ground News, an app and website that uses data to rate the political lean of stories and news outlets, I’ll be featuring parts of Ground News’s “Blindspot Report” in Tangle. The Blindspot Report tells you what stories folks on the left and right miss each week because of their biased news diets.

The left missed a story about North Korea executing a man for violating COVID-19 quarantine rules.

The right missed a story about Twitter billionaire Jack Dorsey giving U.S. mayors $15 million to fund pilot programs for universal basic income.

Want to check out Ground News’s bias ratings, blindspot reports or other news sources? Click here.


Your questions, answered.

Q: Why didn’t we buy more of the Pfizer vaccine?

— Grant, Brooklyn, New York

Tangle: In case you missed this story, this question is about a recent Washington Post report that Pfizer “told the Trump administration it cannot provide substantial additional doses of its coronavirus vaccine until late June or July because other countries have rushed to buy up most of its supply, according to multiple individuals familiar with the situation.”

The gist of the story is that last summer, Pfizer had urged Operation Warp Speed to purchase 200 million doses — enough of its two-shot regimen to inoculate 100 million people. The Warp Speed officials declined, opting instead to buy 100 million doses (enough to inoculate 50 million people) and buy up hundreds of millions of doses of other vaccines, too. Unlike its contract with Moderna, the Trump administration did not actually invest money in the research and development Pfizer did, which means we’ve had less insight into its decisions and how it developed the vaccine than we have for other companies.

Now that Pfizer’s vaccine appears to be the first to get U.S. approval, and is already being distributed in England, U.S. officials came back to the table looking to double their supply. But Pfizer, reportedly, said they had already committed existing stock elsewhere and wouldn’t be able to commit to an additional 100 million doses until the 3rd quarter of next year.

I saw this story getting traction immediately and that it was quickly being used to hammer the Trump administration, but I’d caution folks not to be hasty.

First off, I think it was probably smart not to buy 200 million doses of any one vaccine. Pfizer appears to have narrowly won the race, but they’re not alone, and given that we weren’t investing in their research and development it would have been a risky bet to go all in on their vaccine last summer, when so little was known about it.

Secondly, what the federal government did was actually pretty smart. It hedged its bet. I enjoy a little gambling as much as the next guy, and any seasoned sports bettor will tell you that hedging your bet is the best way to minimize your losses (or, you know, quit gambling altogether — an option the U.S. government obviously didn’t have here). So we put that money into Moderna, AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, and so on. Now, with the way things are breaking, we may hit on all those vaccines, and — with luck — be able to fill the gap. Moderna alone is under contract to supply up to 400 million doses.

All that being said, it’s easy to have 20/20 hindsight and attack the Trump administration for not betting on the right horse. But it’d be silly to do that. There was always going to be a “first” here and I think the Trump administration handled this part of the vaccine strategy as well as they could have. I’d also hesitate to say this conversation is over. Given U.S. wealth and leverage, I wouldn’t be surprised if we found a way to procure an additional 100 million doses from Pfizer earlier than expected.


A story that matters.

COVID-19 and strict regulations in California are upending the entrepreneurial and technology power centers in America, Jim VandeHei reports. Elon Musk is the most recent high-profile business leader to leave California because of the government and cost; he follows the #1 podcast host in the country, Joe Rogan, the data mining technology firm Palantir, conservative news website The Daily Wire, and even Hewlett Packard Enterprise Co., who have all left California for other cities and states. Meanwhile, in New York, workers are adopting to remote life and setting up shop outside the city, where cost of living is lower and the tax systems are friendlier. This may be foreshadowing a future where power centers of the U.S. economy could be dispersed across multiple states, rather than being concentrated in New York City and Silicon Valley.


Numbers.

  • 22. The number of days until the end of 2020.
  • 42. The number of days until inauguration day.
  • 23%. The percentage of Americans who believe Donald Trump will use his pardon power for “the good of the country” before he leaves office.
  • 55%. The percentage of Americans who believe Donald Trump will use his pardon power “for his own benefit” before he leaves office.
  • 64%. The percentage of Americans who say marijuana should be legal at the federal level.
  • 25%. The percentage of Americans who say it shouldn’t.
  • 45%. The percentage of voters who “strongly approve” of Trump’s job performance who believe the results of the 2020 election will be overturned.
  • 29%. The percentage of voters who “strongly approve” of Trump’s job performance who believe it is “very likely” the results of the election will be overturned.
  • 70%. The percentage of all voters who say it is “not likely” the results of the election will be overturned.

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Have a nice day.

A friend of mine is spending his COVID-19 quarantine in Colorado right now and was out on a walk when he came across something you don’t see very often: a fox. Up close and in person. He texted me the photo and I still can’t get over it. It’s pretty rare to see foxes, let alone one as handsome as this one, posing on a snow mound like it’s a photo shoot. So I thought I’d share.

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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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