Today’s read: 8 minutes.
More info on that big Trump whistleblower scandal, plus my thoughts on “reasonable” gun control.
Image: Fibonacci Blue from Minnesota, USA
Tangle hits your inbox Monday through Thursday, around lunchtime (EST), which is why you didn’t get anything from me on Friday. Occasionally, I’ll send a “special Friday edition” or a unique one-off deep dive when there’s something important to cover. We should all get the weekend off from politics.
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My favorite video.
I’m from the Philly area, but I was raised in a D.C. football household. Which means I despise the Eagles and took pleasure in their loss yesterday. In case you missed it (or don’t care about football), the Eagles wide receivers dropped a lot of passes in the loss yesterday, including wide receiver Nelson Algholor. Which makes the video below my favorite of the weekend. A Philadelphia resident, while discussing a harrowing experience where he was catching babies being thrown from a burning building, actually takes a moment to insult an Eagles wide receiver (“We was catching ‘em, unlike Algholor.”)
What D.C. is talking about.
Ukraine. On Thursday, I told you about the mysterious whistleblower complaint that alleged President Trump had said something — including a “promise” to a foreign leader — so troubling it prompted a wave of reporting inside and outside the intelligence community. Now, days later, the picture is getting a bit clearer. According to a Wall Street Journal report on Friday, President Trump pressed the president of Ukraine (Volodymyr Zelensky) eight times in a single phone call to work with Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani and investigate Joe Biden and his son. Giuliani has repeatedly alleged that Joe Biden’s impetus for pressuring Ukraine to fire a top prosecutor in 2016 stemmed from Biden’s son’s involvement in a Ukrainian gas company, which was being investigated by that prosecutor. Biden insists that members of the international community were also calling for the prosecutor to be fired (because he was corrupt). After the call, the United States “blindsided” Ukrainian officials by disclosing it would withhold security assistance from the country, which made everyone’s ears perk up. People are starting to wonder whether Trump tried to pressure Ukraine into investigating his top political opponent, then changed U.S. foreign policy (i.e. not sending financial aid) in order to turn up the heat.
P.S. I got this tip from a source in Ukraine a few weeks ago, and never followed up on it. A good lesson in journalism: always find the time to chase down a story.
What Democrats are saying.
They’re starting to throw around talks of impeachment (again). House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, a Democrat from California who is seen as a top Trump foe, said the president may may “force us” to go down that road if he’s using the power of the presidency to go after political opponents. According to Axios, Schiff’s response was coordinated with Nancy Pelosi, which is significant. Pelosi has resisted impeachment (she thinks it will excite Trump’s base and cost Democrats the 2020 election), but this story may push Dems to cross the Rubicon. Others Democrats are noting that while they should wait for more information, the president and his lawyer have already admitted to the accusations. As for Biden, Democrats are not impressed by the “conspiracy theory.” The prosecutor Biden forced out (while acting as the White House’s “Ukraine enforcer”) was widely seen as corrupt, and Ukrainians were happy he stepped in. The country has been going through a Democratic revolution since 2014. There are lots of things to criticize about the job Hunter Biden took, but nobody — not Ukrainian journalists, Ukrainian officials or U.S. reporters — has found Biden guilty of anything. Best Democrats can tell, the entire thing is a conspiracy cooked up by right-wing bloggers.
What Republicans are saying.
While Trump enjoys overwhelming support from Republicans, there are sort of two classes of conservatives when it comes to stories like this. The Trump loyalist Republicans are saying this is easy as 1+1=2. Biden’s son Hunter took a job at a Ukrainian gas company. Biden then pressured Ukraine’s president to fire the prosecutor investigating that gas company. What’s so difficult to understand? As for Trump’s alleged “promise” or threats to Ukraine’s president, the Trumpists are sounding the “deep state” alarm. They are claiming it’s another group of anonymous, bureaucratic government employees who are trying to damage Trump politically by illegally leaking the contents of his calls. Remember when Adam Schiff claimed he had direct evidence of Trump colluding with Russia? How’d that turn out? Until there is hard evidence (perhaps a recording?), none of them are buying that Trump said what the whistleblower claims. Also, the most recent CNN story on the phone call suggests the whistleblower didn’t actually overhear Trump’s call, but instead learned the information from other people and was essentially reporting a rumor. Other conservatives, like Utah Senator Mitt Romney, are taking a more concerned tone. Romney said, “it would be troubling in the extreme” if Trump pressured the Ukrainian president to investigate Biden. Charlie Sykes, a “never-Trump” conservative commentator, insisted that inaction would damage the separation of powers in the United States. In one particularly unhinged response, Bill Weld, Trump’s Republican primary challenger, called Trump’s actions treason and reminded people the punishment for treason is death.
It doesn’t look good for Trump. His loyalists may be right that the whistleblower complaint is a lot of smoke and no fire (i.e. that whoever filed the complaint didn’t directly hear the “promise” or asks), but Democrats are also right that Trump has essentially admitted what was in the Wall Street Journal article. And so has Giuliani. It appears the president has repeatedly asked a foreign country to investigate his political opponent. The question now is how he has applied pressure for that investigation to take place. The New York Times reported Ukrainian officials were blindsided by the lack of funding. But the paper also says the decision to withhold that funding came before the July 25th phone call where Trump asked for Biden to be investigated, and Ukraine only found out about it after the call. That’s either smooth PR cover or a big hole in the left’s talking points. As for Biden’s “corruption,” there isn’t much there when it comes to Ukraine. The best read on the Biden accusations is here, from a reporter who has been following them for some time. This is the upshot: Biden’s son shouldn’t have taken the job. Biden shouldn’t have strong-armed the Ukrainian president. But the two were not linked together. The investigation into the company where Biden’s son worked had ground to a halt long before Biden called for the prosecutor to be ousted. Also, Biden wasn’t alone in those calls — lots of people wanted the prosecutor to be fired because it appeared he wasn’t doing the job fairly. Finally, lost in all this is the fact Ukraine is in a deeply fragile political state. The country just held Democratic elections and could reasonably be seen as one shining light of political reform and Democratic growth over the last few years while the rest of the world moves in the opposite direction. Now it is being dragged into a political mudslinging mess so Trump and Biden can score political points on each other here in America. I can’t help but feel bad for all the people doing work on the ground there to stabilize the country’s new Democratic system. As one reporter wrote of Giuliani, “What it [Ukraine] does not need is underinformed dinosaurs wading into its sensitive political ecosystem to make points for domestic American consumption.”
Your questions, answered.
Q: What does a reasonable solution for gun control look like? Beto O’Rouke “coming to take your AR-15s and AK47s” doesn’t seem like it will go over well. Curious to hear your thoughts.
- Sam, Oklahoma City, OK
Tangle: Hey Sam! And hello, Oklahoma City. This question is a critical one that Democrats need to answer, and I generally agree that Beto’s one-liners are not necessarily a “reasonable” solution for gun control (in the sense I don’t see it happening). Defining “reasonable” seems important in answering your question, so I’ll assume by “reasonable” you mean something most Americans support and something that could actually pass Congress, be signed by a president (potentially a Democrat after 2020) and become law.
In early September, a Harvard poll found that 27 percent of voters listed gun violence as their top issue, making it more important in that poll than the economy and jobs (and making it the top issue of 2020). It’ll be interesting to see if those results are replicated, but it’s a clear sign that having a plan for gun violence in America is necessary to win over voters. The vast majority of Americans want “universal background checks” for gun purchases at gun shows or private sales, according to a number of polls taken over the last year. But those background checks largely exist already. Less polling has been done on red flag laws, which would give the government the ability to confiscate guns from “at-risk” people, but the partisan and funded polling done on those bills has consistently found majority support for passing these laws. To me, red flag laws are the most reasonable, and most plausible, gun control change we could make. Lots of red flag laws are already being passed at the state level with varying degrees of success.
More broadly speaking, my general philosophy on gun control is “if you have an idea on how to fix it, you’re probably right.” In fact, that was essentially the headline for a column I wrote at A Plus about fixing gun control. Expanding access to mental health would probably reduce gun violence (though people with “mental illnesses” are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of it). Reducing the number of weapons of war like AK-47s in the hands of American citizens will probably reduce mass shooting deadliness. Expanding background checks at the federal level could stop a violent shooter here or there (and if it even stops one, isn’t it worth it?). Abolishing gun-free zones might actually make people safer. Reducing the amount of news coverage we give to mass shooters will slow the contagion effect. Pretty much the only common, stupid idea to address gun violence is trying to tie it to video games.
Some of my views have evolved since I wrote that column, but I feel strongly that fixing gun violence in America requires a holistic approach. Mass shootings are obviously a huge, horrifying, unprecedented, unique-to-America problem. Reducing mass shootings would require a combination of fewer weapons of war in the hands of civilians, more “red flag” laws at the state level, and better execution of the laws we already have in place (several mass shooters have been on the FBI’s radar before they committed acts of violence with little or no follow-up). But conservatives are right that suicides and inner-city violence account for most of the gun-related violence in America, and any reform meant to reduce gun violence should address those issues, too. Conservatives are also right that universal background checks would not have stopped a lot of the most well-known mass shootings in America. Take this breakdown from The Federalist, an admittedly right-wing news website who is funded by anonymous conservative donors (but whose list here, as far as I can tell, is accurate):
Las Vegas 2017: Shooter purchased his firearms from a gun dealer (where background checks are already required).
Orlando 2016: Shooter purchased his firearms from a gun dealer.
Virginia Tech 2007: Shooter purchased his firearms from a gun dealer.
Sandy Hook 2012: Shooter stole his firearms.
Sutherland Springs 2017: Shooter purchased his firearm from a gun dealer. He had a criminal record and the background check system failed to stop him (the same system that would be used for private transfers).
Parkland 2018: Shooter purchased firearm from a gun dealer.
San Bernardino 2017: Shooters’ firearms were “straw-purchased” by someone else.
Fort Hood 2009: Shooter purchased firearm from a gun dealer.
Columbine 1999: Shooters’ guns were straw-purchased for them by someone else.
Thousand Oaks 2018: Shooter purchased firearm legally with a background check.
Navy Yard 2013: Shooter purchased firearm from a gun dealer.
Aurora 2012: Shooter purchased firearms from a gun dealer.
Conservatives will argue that all sales made by gun dealers require federal background checks. Liberals love to talk about “gun show” and “online sale” loopholes, but those terms are pretty misunderstood. Someone can’t just bypass federal background checks by selling a gun at a gun show or online. The loopholes don’t exist in places (i.e. gun shows or online) but actually exist for people without a federal license to sell guns who are living in states that don’t have their own background check requirements beyond federal law. The real loophole here is that a lot of people sell guns as “hobby” but do it infrequently enough they claim they don’t need to be federally licensed, and thus can avoid some of the arduous work that goes into conducting background checks. Second amendment rights activists will argue that is a pretty limited scope of people and usually involves relatives selling to relatives or friends selling to friends. But in 2015, a Northeast and Harvard joint study found that 22 percent of the people who purchased guns underwent no background check. After cutting out sales between family and friends, that number came down to 15 percent. Still, extrapolated to the nation, that means 5 million gun owners whose most recent purchase did not involve a background check. Which reminds me: we need to study gun violence. Most studies about who owns guns and how they bought them are outdated because the gun lobby is preventing government-funded studies, so why don’t we add that to the list of things we can do to help us better tackle this issue.
Anyway, this is a pretty long-winded way of saying that liberals would do themselves a service by learning more about guns so they aren’t dismissed out of hand by conservatives. They’d also help their cause by resisting the urge to search for a silver bullet fix (for lack of a better expression) and embrace conservative ideas to reduce gun violence as part of their own plans, rather than battle them as rival ideas.
For my part, I’d accept any number of gun control laws as potentially “helpful” and I think with a Democratic administration there could be enough momentum to, at the least, pass versions of red flag laws that are becoming more popular statewide. Those laws give police the ability to confiscate firearms from someone who is deemed a threat to themselves or others by a judge and have been shown to — the very least — reduce suicide. Naturally, red flags laws face huge opposition from the right (giving the police jurisdiction to confiscate your property is a very un-American idea), but Florida, Illinois and Indiana have all passed them with some Republican resistance and I think more states — or the federal government — could implement red flag laws with concerted effort and lots of focus. Federal red flag laws historically have gone nowhere, but Republicans are starting to warm up to the idea.
The Trump administration is threatening the University of North Carolina and Duke University with funding cuts unless it stops disproportionately portraying “the positive aspects of Islam,” according to The Hill. The Education Department, headed by Betsy DeVos, sent a letter to the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies saying it would lose a grant they’ve received for a decade because the program focuses on “understanding the positive aspects of Islam, while there is an absolute absence of any similar focus on the positive aspects of Christianity, Judaism or any other religion or belief system in the Middle East.” The Education Department denied the threat had anything to do with Islam, saying it was about the program complying with rules that compel students to learn a foreign language and hear diverse regional perspectives. Click.
A story that matters.
On Friday, millions of people around the world hit the streets for the largest ever rally to address climate change. 1.1 million students were excused from class to participate in New York City alone, and Mayor de Blasio estimated about 60,000 people participated (organizers say it was more than 250,000). Protests took place globally, and activists say a total of 4 million people participated. The rally illustrated both American and global enthusiasm for action to be taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and promote alternative, eco-friendly lifestyles. You can read more from USA Today about the scale of the protests here.
Have a nice day.
Mixing alcohol and pedaling isn’t typically encouraged, but we’re going to give these folks a pass. In Westmoreland, PA, the second annual “Trike and Chug” race took place. Teams of racers sped around a track in tricycles while chugging a beer in order to raise money for the purchase of special adaptive bicycles for disabled children. Each time a team changes riders, the existing driver has to chug a beer before they can move onto the next lap. The race is run by the charity group Rotary and was lined up with a local craft beer week. One organizer of the event got the idea for the race from Revenge of the Nerds. The group was aiming to double the $5,000 it raised in its first year. You can read more here.