Sep 9, 2020

The poisoning of Alexei Navalny.

The poisoning of Alexei Navalny.

Plus, could term limits fix Congress?

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. You can read Tangle for free, and you can reach me anytime by replying to this email. If someone sent you this email, they’re asking you to subscribe. You can do that by clicking here.

Today’s read: 11 minutes.

Another poisoning in Russia and a question about term limits. Plus, some quick hits you need to know.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is once again being accused of poisoning an opponent. Photo:

Quick hits.

  1. Senate Republicans unveiled a slimmed-down coronavirus relief package yesterday that includes $300 of additional federal unemployment benefits, liability protection for businesses bringing employees back to work, a new round of loans for the small business Paycheck Protection Program, a $10 billion loan to the Postal Service, and $105 billion for schools through an Education Stabilization Fund. It does not include another round of $1,200 stimulus checks or state or local government funding. The bill is not expected to pass the Senate but is instead viewed as a starting point for new negotiations.
  2. A major vaccine trial being conducted by Oxford University was paused after finding a “potentially unexplained illness” in a patient who received the vaccine. AstraZeneca stopped human trials after the condition developed. Dr. Anthony Fauci said it was unfortunate but not an uncommon safety valve in vaccine trials.
  3. President Donald Trump has gained ground in Florida, alarming Democrats in the Miami area. “President Donald Trump’s campaign and Republicans are making inroads in Miami-Dade County, the state’s most populous, forcing the Biden campaign to scramble in response to the threat to the wellspring of Democratic votes,” Politico reports. Democrats were beginning to view Florida as a state where they could lock up the 2020 election, but recent polling shows Trump gaining more support with Cuban American voters, who typically vote Republican, while outspending Biden by about $4 million in Spanish-language ads.
  4. Wildfires and record-breaking heat continue to rage across the West Coast — from southern California to Oregon. “About 40 wildfires were burning in California alone. Blazes were also reported in Utah, Nevada, Arizona, Idaho, Oregon, Wyoming and Montana. Smoke has been detected at least as far east as New Mexico,” USA Today reported. Experts say heatwaves, wind, lightning storms and the wildfires that accompany them are increasing in severity in part because of climate change, causing uncontrollable fires up and down the coast. 170,000 customers lost power in California on Tuesday, and almost 250,000 homes and businesses in Washington and Oregon have, too.
  5. The top police officials in Rochester are stepping down after protests over the death of Daniel Prude. “Prude’s death continued to roil Rochester’s department, with seven police officers suspended from the city’s force and New York’s attorney general saying she would impanel a grand jury as part of an ongoing investigation,” The Washington Post reported. “Then came the abrupt twin retirements on Tuesday of Police Chief La’Ron Singletary and Deputy Chief Joseph Morabito, who joined a growing cadre of top police officials who have stepped down or have been forced out in cities where protest and outcry about the nation’s policing have not subsided.”

What D.C. is talking about.

Alexei Navalny. Navalny is a Russian politician and an outspoken opponent of Vladimir Putin. For years, he has been frustrating the Russian government by publishing exposés on corruption, mobilizing protests and attempting to run against Putin in presidential elections. Much of his power has been garnered via his YouTube channel, which generates more than 10 million unique viewers a month and operates outside the state-controlled media in Russia. In 2018, he was barred from participating in the election.

On August 20th, after enjoying a preflight tea, Navalny boarded a plane to Moscow, Russia, from Siberia. Shortly after takeoff, he collapsed on the plane with a grave, unknown illness. Video of Navalny groaning in pain on his flight immediately went viral online, and shortly after, speculation began spreading that he had been poisoned. After spending two days in a Russian hospital, and at the urging of international parties, Navalny was airlifted from the hospital to Germany — where he continues to be treated and tested.

Last week, German officials released a statement saying they had confirmed Navalny was poisoned. On Monday, the 44-year-old Navalny was removed from a medically induced coma and began waking up. Yesterday, the G7 contingent of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, the United States and the High Representative of the European Union all signed a statement condemning the “confirmed poisoning” of Navalny. German chemical weapons experts say tests confirm that he was poisoned with a Soviet-era Novichok class nerve agent. Novichok was the same poison used in 2018 against a former Russian spy and his daughter in Great Britain, which inadvertently killed a British citizen who happened to come in contact with them.

It’s tough to overstate the significance of this news. It’s not the first time the Kremlin has been accused of poisoning opponents or dissidents — in fact, it’s happened repeatedly to journalists, intelligence agents and political opponents since Putin’s rise to power. But, despite lacking widespread support, Navalny is the biggest threat to Putin’s power in Russia, and he has grown influential in part through the same means the opposition in Belarus has: through YouTube.

It also comes at a precarious time for Germany, which has nearly completed the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that is supposed to help export gas from Russia into Germany just as Germany tries to wean itself off of nuclear power and coal energy. Now, the world is watching to see how the United States and Europe respond.


Both sides agree this is unacceptable. Putin’s Russia has, for years, oscillated between pleas to be treated as a normal global power and controversial actions like this. For the rest of the G7 nations, the idea of including Russia has always been a challenge precisely because Putin has been accused so many times of things just like this — “disappearing” his critics and rivals. Republican and Democratic leaders, along with the rest of the western world, condemned the poisoning in the strongest terms possible. But the question is: now what?

What the left is saying.

As you might expect, a lot of people on the left are looking to President Trump for a strong condemnation. Throughout his time in office, Trump has been plagued by allegations of cozying up to dictators and taking a particularly soft line on Putin. You might even remember accusations that he and Putin colluded together to help him win the 2016 election.

During a press conference on Friday, Trump said "We haven't had any proof yet” that Navalny was poisoned, “but I will take a look.” CNN’s Samantha Vinograd said “it gets tiresome under President Donald Trump as his inaccurate statements pile up, but it's important that Americans are made aware that the President continues to lie about almost everything.”

“Those statements sound like the US President is serving as a surrogate for the Kremlin -- the Russian government is saying there is no proof and that they need more information from Germany,” Vinograd wrote, noting that U.S. intelligence agencies, NATO, and the European Union all issued statements confirming Germany’s assessment. “Trump's statements are simply not credible… More broadly, Trump's refusal to condemn a Russian chemical weapon attack on an opposition figure signals that Russia can get a free pass on just about anything -- and Putin won't hear a peep from POTUS. That puts every one of the Kremlin's perceived enemies at risk -- Putin feels emboldened to tick through his macabre to-do list of threats to eliminate.”

In 2018, after the poisoning of the Russian ex-spy and his daughter in Great Britain inadvertently killed a bystander, 20 countries came together to carry out a mass expulsion of Russian diplomats and spies. But two years later, the ramifications of those expulsions are hard to decipher. Some have suggested German Chancellor Angela Merkel could take action by halting Nord Stream 2, the planned pipeline that will double the amount of gas coming into Europe from Russia.

The Guardian’s editorial board also criticized America and Trump, saying “the Kremlin faces little or no cost for interfering in foreign democracies, and not much more for endangering foreign citizens with attacks on foreign soil, it will be confident that it can act with impunity within its own borders.”

“To no one’s surprise, though the White House has condemned the poisoning, Donald Trump has barely deigned to acknowledge it,” the editorial board wrote. “The US president was unhappy at the extent of the 2018 expulsions. He has yet to challenge Vladimir Putin over intelligence reports that Russia paid bounties to the Taliban for fatal attacks on US troops in Afghanistan. He suggested the Russian president’s denials of election meddling in 2016 bore more weight than US intelligence assessments, and dismisses the reports that Kremlin-backed groups are trying to interfere in November’s election on his behalf.”

What the right is saying.

The right has been critical of Trump, but also focused on the fact that Germany holds potential power over Putin if it wants to punish him for what’s been alleged.

“German Chancellor Angela Merkel could strike the biggest blow to the Kremlin by canceling her country’s participation in the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia,” The Wall Street Journal editorial board said. “The U.S. should also be leading here, yet President Trump is showing his trademark passivity toward Mr. Putin. He has talked around the Navalny poisoning when asked, as if he’s waiting for a Kremlin police report.”

“If Mr. Trump wants Mrs. Merkel to cancel Nord Stream 2, as he says, he can work to coordinate a response that assures Germany of help if she does,” the board added. “Mr. Trump has never cared much about human rights, but this is an issue where rights mesh with U.S. national interests.”

In The Washington Examiner, Tom Rogan made a similar argument: end Nord Stream 2. “Attempting to murder Navalny, Putin has proved that he is willing to shred international norms as he sees fit,” Rogan wrote. “The idea that Putin can be relied upon for the coming decades of European energy security is as ludicrous as the Kremlin's claims that it has nothing to do with Navalny's predicament. If the EU is at all serious in its claims to stand for the defense of human rights and the democratic rule of law, it must now act in that vein.”

In Fox News, Judith Miller hit Trump for a “muddled” message and for refusing to blame Vladimir Putin. “His refusal to blame Russia for what Germany and NATO have called a reprehensible crime raises the obvious question: Why the persistent defense of, and deference towards, an unrepentant autocrat?” she asked.

“The Trump administration should lean harder on German Chancellor Angela Merkel to cancel the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which would make Germany even more dependent on Russian energy,” Miller said. “And Trump has got to stop trying to find ways to bring Vladimir Putin back into the G-7 club, pretending that he is anyone’s garden variety tough ruler.”

My take.

It’s the stuff of a spy movie. What’s even wilder is that right now, as Navalny sits in a German hospital, many experts believe he is still unsafe. One Russian expert predicted the Kremlin will try to poison him again, even as he sits in the closely monitored Charite Hospital in Berlin.

Any time there is a general consensus on something, I try to locate and flesh out my skepticism. The consensus here is that the Russian government and Vladimir Putin were behind this poisoning. Every American paper on the left and right is covering this event as if it’s fact. I went looking for a dissenting opinion and it didn’t take long to find one, though I had to go to BBC Radio and listen to some foreign journalists discussing the case on a BBC podcast.

The counterargument here is twofold: on the one hand, there’s growing evidence that poison has become an assassination weapon of choice in Russia precisely because every time someone is poisoned the Russian government is blamed. That means, for instance, if you’re a Russian political operative or mobster wanting to take out someone like Navalny — for whatever reason — poison is a good way to make the international community blame Putin. Navalny has been exposing all sorts of corruption in Russia, and it’s possible, in fact likely, that someone other than Putin wanted his head.

Furthermore, the biggest gap in the “was this Putin” question is the most obvious one: Why? Why now? Why with the whole world watching? Why do it in such an obvious way? The Wall Street Journal rightly described using Novichok poison as “exactly the same as leaving an autograph at the crime scene.”

I can’t say I have an answer. But whether we know the motive or not, what we do know is that this poison is tightly controlled by the Russian government, and if it is what was used to attack Navalny then there is a good chance it happened at the direction (or with the approval) of Putin. Most international reporters have speculated the motivation for this timing is a collision of realities.

For one, there is an uprising happening in Belarus right now that’s being led by an opposition candidate who, much like Navalny, is garnering support via YouTube and non-state television video channels.

Two, anti-Kremlin protests in the Siberian city of Khabarovsk also show a growing disdain for Putin and his government close to home.

And three, the possibility of a Biden presidency — which could weaken Putin’s hand — is getting closer and closer.

Trump was right from the start to oppose the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will make European energy far too dependent on a government that continues to show its true colors to the world. But until now, his opposition has been all talk in the face of the pipeline’s ongoing construction, which is more than 90% complete and seems to be inevitable, regardless of what Trump says. Now he has been dealt a perfect hand to support Germany’s exit from the pipeline and punish Russia for an attempt at an extrajudicial killing. The only question is: Will he play his cards, or fold?

Blindspot report.

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 right missed a story about the Department of Homeland Security labeling white supremacists as the “most persistent and lethal threat” to the United States.

The left missed a story about Joe Biden walking back his call for a national mask mandate after he acknowledged that it would probably be unconstitutional.

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

Your questions, answered.

Q: The extended delays created by Congress and the partisan bickering often associated with them become especially frustrating when the media emphasizes how much time each side spends on fundraising for their next re-election -- rather than devoting that precious time to productive legislative discussion and action. How might we apply term limits? Is this a feasible and/or realistic approach?

— Lindsay, New York, New York

Tangle: When it comes to fixing Congress, term limits is one of the most common suggestions I get from readers and people interested in politics. The upside to term limits seems rather obvious: if a member of Congress is not spending their time fundraising and campaigning to get re-elected, they may actually spend more time trying to change their district and country for the better while in office. By setting term limits, the consensus is that politicians will spend more time legislating and trying to secure their legacy than they will doing whatever they can to keep getting re-elected.

On top of that, it seems that incumbents (the people currently holding office) are at a major advantage in elections, no matter how badly they fail their constituents or what kind of corruption is exposed during their terms. This advantage often dissuades new politicians or challengers from even attempting to run for office. That’s another strong argument for term limits: incumbents are at a constant advantage and are rarely booted from Congress unless they get caught in some kind of egregious failure or scandal.

I’m certainly sympathetic to this view. The amount of time members of Congress spend on the phone with donors, campaign officials and generally trying to simply stay in power is obscene. It’s often referred to as “call time,” and some politicians — like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Elizabeth Warren — have made pledges to reduce their call time and not spend their days on the phone with big donors. I applaud them.

The simplicity of this argument has helped term limits gain national support. In 2013, 75% of Americans supported term limits for members of Congress. A 2018 survey found 82% of Americans approved of a Constitutional Amendment that would place term limits on members of Congress. Throughout his candidacy and presidency, Donald Trump has shown an affinity for term limits for Congress (though he’s often joked about staying in office for many years beyond his own term limits).

While the upside of term limits are obvious, the dangers of term limits are less so. The first and most obvious is what to do when voters genuinely like their members of Congress? Congress has abysmal approval ratings, but plenty of members of Congress on the right and left enjoy glowing reviews from their constituents (this dynamic of Americans hating Congress in general but liking their own representative has been well-documented). By implementing term limits, you actually limit the choices voters have, because they can no longer re-elect a representative whom they like or who may be doing a great job.

Another downside is the simple fact that policymaking and legislating are, like any complex profession, a craft. Would you insist that your surgeon or police officer or teacher have no more than four or eight or 12 years of experience? I doubt it. On the contrary, experience breeds confidence and capability. Why wouldn’t the same logic hold for a member of Congress? It’s a peculiar thing that a lengthy career in political office brings about sinister implications in the public’s eye, while holding down one job in most other professions is a sign of strong performance. But there’s a reason that people like Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell are both beloved and hated by their supporters and opposing parties — it’s because they are good at what they do. And they got good by being around for a long time.

In that sense, one could easily make the argument that a representative who is experienced and unburdened by term limits is more likely to give the people he or she is representing the things they want — because they’ll best know how to get them. Even less well understood is the danger that inexperienced politicians pose. Even legislation crafted with the entire Congress’s eyes looking over it closely often has unintended consequences or creates loopholes for special interests (intended and unintended) that weren’t spotted when a bill was signed into law. The law is a tricky thing, and having people who are not experts creating it can be a recipe for disaster.

Finally, term limits may simply worsen the very problem they are trying to solve. Imagine a Congress full of inexperienced or new members trying to decide how to handle a piece of legislation. Who might they turn to if they don’t have their own policy expertise to lean on? Probably the lobbyists and special interests term limits are supposed to keep them away from. This isn’t hypothetical; it has been documented.

“Term limit literature commonly finds that more novice legislators will look to fill their own informational and policy gaps by an increased reliance on special interests and lobbyists,” the Brookings Institute found. “Relatedly, lawmakers in states with term limits have been found—including from this 2006 50-state survey—to increase deference to agencies, bureaucrats, and executives within their respective states and countries simply because the longer serving officials have more experience with the matters.”

There are some middle-ground solutions here, though. One such solution was proposed in 1997 by Bill Frenzel, a Republican representative who served in Minnesota. Frenzel proposed term limits of 12 years for members of Congress that would also give voters an opportunity to re-elect members they liked by making politicians eligible for different branches of government when their term limits ended or making them re-eligible for their same seat after “broken service” (i.e. a brief hiatus).

This strikes me as a strong solution. It addresses the additional issues term limits may produce while offering the very thing most Americans want: more accountability and focus on them. The upshot is term limits are not the catch-all solution many people think they are, unless they are handled delicately.

As for how realistic it is: that’s much harder to parse. Term limits have been in the shadows for decades, but the funny thing about Congress is that it very rarely votes to limit its own power. Without sustained, unforgiving, bipartisan public pressure, I don’t imagine we’ll be seeing them anytime soon.

If you want to ask a question, simply reply to this email and write in. I try to answer a reader question in every email.

A story that matters.

Dentists are seeing an epidemic of tooth fractures, and the reason might surprise you: more stress at home, worse posture at your desk and poor sleep are contributing factors. “Are your teeth currently touching?” Dr. Tammy Chen asks in a New York Times article. “Even as you read this article? If so, that’s a sure sign that you’re doing some damage — your teeth shouldn’t actually touch throughout the day at all unless you’re actively eating and chewing your food. Instead, your jaw should be relaxed, with a bit of space between the teeth when the lips are closed. Be mindful, and try to stop yourself from grinding when you catch yourself doing it.” Not only does Dr. Chen offer an explanation for why these fractures are happening, she gives some helpful tips on how to stay relaxed, improve your posture, sleep better and be more aware.


  • 18%. The percentage of Americans who have a positive view of Russia.
  • 59%. Vladimir Putin’s approval rating in Russia as of May, the lowest it has been in nearly two decades.
  • 69%. The percentage of Americans who view the farming and agriculture industry positively, the highest of any business sector polled.
  • 30%. The percentage of Americans who view the sports industry positively, the lowest of any business sector polled.
  • 77%. The percentage of Americans who are very or somewhat concerned with the issue of climate change and the impact it is having on the U.S. environment.
  • 52%. The percentage of 2016 Trump voters who are very or somewhat concerned with the issue of climate change and the impact it is having on the U.S. environment.
  • 48-48. The Joe Biden-Donald Trump matchup in the latest Marist poll of likely Florida voters.

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Have a nice day.

For months, LaShenda Williams was spending nights sleeping in her car in a Kroger grocery store parking lot. She had been homeless for nearly a year, battling drug addiction, and was a victim of physical abuse. Williams said she would sit all the way back in her seat to avoid being noticed, but a Kroger manager spotted her one night. Instead of calling the police or reporting her, the manager insisted Williams attend an upcoming job fair. When she did, the manager showed up to help her fill out an application, then hired her on the spot. That was in December. Eight months later, Williams still has her job and just moved into her own one-bedroom apartment, which she got help furnishing from her coworkers at Kroger and local community members, via donations.

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