What did Trump know — and when did he know it?
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Today’s read: 11 minutes.
The Russian bounties story, a question about voter suppression, some quick hits and an important story about judges. Also, we’re halfway through 2020 today, which could end up being the most infamous year of the whole century. How do you think it’s going?
Vladimir Putin (left) and Donald Trump speak during the 2017 G-20. Photo: Kremlin.ru
Yesterday’s newsletter about the Supreme Court’s abortion ruling was delivered late. I send Tangle newsletters out between 12 p.m. and 12:30 p.m. EST Monday through Thursday. Every now and then, the newsletters get lost in a weird email purgatory, where they’re sent but they’re stuck on the servers. If it’s ever after 12:30pm EST and you haven’t gotten a newsletter, first search “Tangle” to see if it went to your promotions or junk folder.
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If you missed yesterday’s newsletter, you can read it here.
Yesterday’s newsletter drew dozens of responses, but I’d like to share one from Josh Brahm, who lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, and is the president of the pro-life group the Equal Rights Institute. I appeared on Josh’s podcast a few weeks ago, and he offered some healthy pushback on my perspective in yesterday’s newsletter about abortion.
“Most of the questions aren't even scientific ones; they are philosophical ones,” Brahm said about the pro-life vs. pro-choice debate. “Science can tell us that biological life begins at fertilization, but it cannot tell us that it's a person with value, or that women shouldn't have absolute autonomy over the life in their bodies. The brightest minds on both sides of the abortion debate all understand that this is primarily a philosophical debate, not merely a scientific one.
Finally, I agree that people using contraceptives more often and more effectively is at least one of the primary causes of the abortion rate drop in the last several decades. This naturally makes people wonder the same thing I think you're wondering about in your take: if that's the most effective abortion reducer, then why doesn't the pro-life movement just transition to supporting that? The answer is complicated, partially because many pro-life people are members of the Catholic faith who have theological objections to contraceptives, even the methods that don't potentially have an abortifacient effect.
Remember for a moment what it's like to be in a pro-life advocate's shoes: we think abortion is the legalized killing of thousands of babies A DAY... it's a human rights injustice that is so severe to us that it's in that category of things that shouldn't be merely reduced, but ultimately be abolished, to the extent possible.”
- The “senility” battle is officially raging. Donald Trump and Joe Biden have each begun attacking each other’s cognitive abilities and decline as a reason the other person is not fit to run the country. Trump has long insinuated Biden was becoming senile, and yesterday Biden returned the favor, saying Trump "doesn’t seem to be cognitively aware of what’s going on” regarding his own briefings. Biden is 77 and Trump is 74, and both have spent the last few years defending their own mental capacities. (My take: I’m not sure I trust that either of them are doing well between the ears).
- The New York Times released a fascinating profile of the 2016 Trump voters who are abandoning him in 2020. With his poll numbers underwater, these voters could be a look into the reasons behind Trump’s flailing support: COVID-19, his handling of race relations and their disappointment at how a non-politician has led the country. They represent just two percent of the electorate in battleground states, according to recent polls, but could have an impact on the election’s outcome if it’s close.
- Congress will have an 11-day window between recesses to pass a new stimulus package that addresses the continuing economic impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak. Temporarily increased unemployment payments to 33 million Americans will expire at the end of this month, and so far there is no clear plan on what Congress will do. GOP lawmakers argue that the benefits are too high and are motivating people to stay unemployed. Democrats say that workers don’t have jobs to go back to and poverty and homelessness will spike without continued help.
- The European Union announced plans to reopen its borders to 15 countries yesterday. The list, notably, does not include the United States. Brazil and Russia were also not on the list. The list was drawn up based on health criteria, and EU officials went through pains to appear as non-political as possible.
- Police in Hong Kong issued their first arrest under the new “security law” that gives mainland China more authority in the semi-autonomous territory. The man arrested was charged for carrying a flag that called for Hong Kong’s independence. The arrest, which was immediately followed by a second detention and dozens more arrests for “unlawful gatherings,” immediately confirmed pro-Democracy advocates’ worst fears that China would begin clamping down in Hong Kong.
What D.C. is talking about.
The Russian bounties. As President Trump prepared to remove troops from Afghanistan, new intelligence reports surfaced that a Russian military unit was offering bounties on U.S. soldiers to Taliban-linked militants. One bolstering piece of evidence was a bank transfer intercepted by U.S. intelligence officials between a Russian-linked and Taliban-linked bank, according to The New York Times. Detainees also described the bounties while being interrogated, according to reports.
The credibility of the report has been contested — both by the White House and officials who pointed to the National Security Agency (NSA), which is skeptical of “human intelligence,” or intel gathered during interrogations. President Trump also contested the report, saying he was not briefed on it because the information was not found credible. But since then, additional reports have been published in the Associated Press and The New York Times that President Trump was briefed on the intelligence as far back as 2019 and as recently as February of 2020.
Speaking anonymously to The New York Times, some officials “said there was disagreement among intelligence officials about the strength of the evidence about the suspected Russian plot and the evidence linking the attack on the Marines to the suspected Russian plot, but they did not detail those disputes.”
Russia also denied the reports. “This unsophisticated plant clearly illustrates the low intellectual abilities of the propagandists of American intelligence, who instead of inventing something more plausible have to make up this nonsense,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said.
What the left is saying.
Either the president knew about the bounties and did nothing or was never briefed on them — and both are startling and frightening revelations.
“The fact that you or your staff were not ‘briefed’ on this critical intelligence does not excuse the White House for its failure to take action to defend our troops,” former CIA Director Leon Panetta said in The Washington Post. “The answer is not ‘nobody briefed or told me.’ The answer is: What is the United States going to do about it?”
Democratic presumptive presidential nominee Joe Biden said it would be a “truly shocking revelation” about Trump and his failure to protect U.S. troops in Afghanistan if the reports were true. Former national security advisor Susan Rice said she found it “exceedingly difficult” to believe nobody told Trump about the intelligence.
Others are hammering Trump more for his soft-natured tone with Vladimir Putin, who continues to provoke and outmaneuver the president on the global stage, endangering our troops, all while the president heaps praise on him.
“Trump has remained largely silent despite a series of Russian provocations against U.S. forces,” Janusz Bugajski wrote in The Hill. “The provocations have included frequent Russian overflights of U.S. Navy ships, erratic movements by Russian surveillance ships off the U.S. coast and dangerous navy encounters precipitated by Russian vessels in several locations... It seems that even the targeted killing of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan will not embolden Trump to finally condemn Putin’s actions and ambitions.”
The Washington Post’s Brian Klaas and former national security adviser Susan Rice contextualized the report, noting that Trump had just invited Russia into the G7 summit of global leaders. The assessment also spoke about bounties on British soldiers, and was shared with British intelligence, which would explain why foreign leaders in Britain were so disgusted by Trump’s invitation to Russia. “British troops were being targeted by militias on the Kremlin’s payroll and Trump wanted to give Putin a special treat as a token of gratitude?” Klaas asked.
What the right is saying.
The Wall Street Journal editorial board took a mixed stance. On the one hand, it was skeptical of the premise of the reports: “the Taliban have been killing Americans for years for the religious pleasure of it—why would getting paid make all that much difference?” On the other hand, they don’t know “why anyone is surprised that Mr. Putin’s Russia would try to make trouble for America? He’s been doing it for at least 12 years, across three Administrations, since he invaded neighboring Georgia in 2008. Mr. Biden’s reaction to that affront was to blame the George W. Bush Administration and call for a ‘reset’ with Russia.”
Remember: It was Republicans who warned about Russia at the beginning of Obama’s term, when they were dismissed and laughed at by Democrats and the media. The board conceded that “Trump’s continuing personal solicitousness toward Mr. Putin is strange bordering on the bizarre,” and that it has “accomplished nothing.” But it also notes that the intelligence reports are clearly being leaked to damage Trump before the election.
Which, by the way, is another element of this: was this intelligence ready for the public? If it’s true, as The New York Times and the AP reported, that this intel was being disputed, didn’t we just blow the whole thing up? Russia is “shredding every piece of evidence that it happened as we speak. All because President Trump’s breathless critics in the media decided to insert themselves and interrupt the intelligence community’s efforts,” Jim Banks said on Fox News.
Tom Rogan added context of his own in The Washington Examiner, reminding everyone that Russia is doing far more than allegedly paying off Taliban soldiers. “Alongside its apparent engaging of the Taliban to kill American and coalition soldiers, the GRU has supported the group with arms, money, and intelligence material to enable its attacks and improve its operational security… Indeed, the GRU’s toxic penchant for murder, mayhem, and exceptionally aggressive and risky operations means that its section of the daily brief could alone be ten pages long.”
Robert C. O’Brien, Trump’s national security adviser, has insisted that the reports were unsubstantiated. Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE), who is a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said they needed to get to the bottom of what happened.
“This is a time to focus on the two things Congress should be asking and looking at: No. 1, who knew what, when, and did the commander in chief know? And if not, how the hell not?” he said.
This story comes at a fascinating time for me, as I’m currently making my way through “The President's Book of Secrets: The Untold Story of Intelligence Briefings to America's Presidents,” which is literally about presidential briefings, their history and how they happen.
Two things are apparent: One, it’s totally possible that Trump was not briefed on this intel. Or that, if he was, it was in passing. We know assuredly, through reporting and his own admission, that Trump prefers condensed, short versions of the presidential daily brief. Every president has taken their briefings differently since those briefings began. We also know Trump doesn’t take his briefing daily, and sometimes asks that it be read to him. This is a major criticism of POTUS: “He doesn’t read,” “the country is being run by his cabinet while he tweets,” etc. And, frankly, we’ve got plenty of evidence to support those claims.
Two, even if he were briefed on it, it’s possible it wasn’t in the top 10 most important things he’d heard that day. I get how absurd that sounds, but think about the last few months — or even early 2019. North Korea missile tests, COVID-19, Hong Kong, China, Russia’s movements here, the border with Mexico, clashes between India and China, Venezuela descending into chaos… it goes on and on and on.
As Tom Rogan pointed out, even in the narrow focus of Russia’s actions in Afghanistan, this news shouldn’t be shocking. Of course Russia is putting bounties on U.S. soldiers. That’s exactly what has made Trump’s lovefest with Putin so disgusting to so many people — and it’s likely why Trump is underwater in his approval rating amongst members of the military.
I’d also like to point out that just because two anonymous “intelligence officials” told The New York Times, this doesn’t make it true. How senior were they? Who were they? Why are they sharing the info now? Remember: we went to war in Iraq over intelligence reports like this one about “weapons of mass destruction” that didn’t exist.
If these leaks are real, and they happened before the intelligence officials could parse what was real from what was B.S., I’ve got some concerns too. There are soldiers in Afghanistan whose lives are on the line, right now, for a $2 trillion war that started before some of those soldiers were born and has done little to improve the state of Afghanistan, and that has left 140,000 people — many of whom were Afghan citizens — dead.
I don’t know if Trump was briefed or not, and it’s still too early to say whether the intel is solid. Notably, Republicans left meetings with the White House and immediately issued warnings to Putin, which says to me there is something there. Democrats are still largely in the dark. But what’s clear is that Trump’s relationship with Putin has not borne fruit for the U.S. Even Trump’s call to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, which I supported in this newsletter in March, was predicated on peaceful Taliban operations in the region. Now we’re learning the Taliban could be fulfilling bounties on U.S. soldiers? It’s all a huge mess.
There really is a tweet for everything:
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.
Last week, the left missed a story about how a federal judge ruled that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio were wrong to limit worship services while condoning mass protests.
Last week, the right missed a story about how a Chicago doctor who had recovered from COVID-19 was unable to donate blood plasma because he was gay.
Your questions, answered.
Reminder: Tangle is all about reader questions. To ask something, all you have to do is reply to this email and write in.
Q: I've seen a lot of stuff floating around about voter suppression by way of removal of voting locations. Recently it's been specific to Kentucky where people are saying they're reducing the number of polling places in majority Black areas. It also seems like a complicated situation with COVID, but having fewer polling locations seems like it would increase the risk? I'm a bit wary since I'm seeing that stuff a lot on Twitter and Reddit but not exactly from people who I'd consider "impartial"... but at the same time, I don't know how that could really be justified. Is this as bad as it sounds or is there a reasonable explanation I'm missing?
— Joe, Cleveland, OH
Tangle: If the question is whether voter suppression is real, I want to be unambiguous about the answer: yes. If you’re asking whether removing polling places is a tactic for voter suppression, again: the answer is yes.
As the question relates specifically to Kentucky, the answer is a lot more complicated. In fact, Kentucky might just be a shining example of how things should go in November. Still, I’m not surprised you were compelled to ask this question: On the face of it, things looked really ugly in Kentucky. The 3,700 typical polling locations were reduced to 200. In Jefferson County, where the state’s largest Black population is, there was just a single polling place left open.
There were stories before the election about how there was “one polling place for a city of 600,000 people” in Louisville, Kentucky, or about how Lexington voters waited an hour in line at Kroger Field to cast a ballot, or this Forbes article, asking breathlessly if we were witnessing “Jim Crow 2.0.” These reports have kernels of truth that were mostly masking speculation about what was going to happen.
In reality, things in Kentucky actually went quite well. Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear and Republican Secretary of State Michael Adams came together and agreed to allow registered voters to send mail-in ballots for the Kentucky election, which in and of itself was designed to be part of the solution to polling place closures. Kentucky voters were also allowed to vote as early as June 15th, a full week before the actual primary, meaning voters were casting ballots all week.
And, while it’s true polling locations were closed across the state, Beshear and Adams ended up replacing smaller locations with singular, massive voting locations. This seemed like an effort to actually give more opportunity for social distancing while also serving the same number of people through fewer locations. I’m sure it wasn’t perfect, but I’m also skeptical that Beshear and Adams had any intent of suppressing turnout.
In the end, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. The Louisville situation seemed remedied by the week-long voting and absentee ballots, and the Lexington situation — one report of an hour-long wait — is really not the worst thing in the world. Officials were, after all, navigating an unprecedented pandemic during an election year with huge interest and another surge of voters.
"If the governor and I are both suppressors, we're doing a terrible job because we've got the highest turnout we've ever seen — and that's the bottom line," Adams told The Courier Journal last week.
And he’s got a point. Almost 29% of Kentuckians voted in last Thursday’s primary, nearly breaking the record voter turnout that they saw in 2008. In fact, The New York Times said Kentucky’s election might be a “template for success in November.” The Times accurately described it as “two elections being held at once” — 760,000 mail ballots and a 270,000-ballot vote at the reduced number of polling places. Even in the state’s two largest cities, there were minimum delays at the large-scale voting centers.
But I don’t mean to downplay the threat of poll closures and COVID-19 in November. Even pre-pandemic, Texas closed down hundreds of polling locations across the state in what I can only say was a clear effort to hurt minority voter turnout. Some counties closed so many polling places they actually violated Texas law. The Guardian found that “the places where the black and Latinx population is growing by the largest numbers have experienced the vast majority of the state’s poll site closures.”
In Georgia, new voting machines, missing absentee ballots and polling place closures led to long enough lines (full-day long lines) that some people simply gave up and left. These are just two examples of countless election failures that included poll closures, which disproportionately impacted minority and urban voters — regardless of whether it was intentional or not (plenty of white or affluent neighborhoods have been impacted by poll closures, but it is much less common).
In other states and counties, voter suppression is not so much targeted as it is a product of the circumstances. Hiring poll workers, getting absentee ballots out, opening new polling locations, closing others — all of these take money. State and local governments are being crushed by the pandemic, and in Ohio, election boards are saying they already spent November’s money on March’s primary. One voting task force explained to The New York Times that the cost of postage and a staff to process ballots pushed the average cost of an absentee ballot to $5 in one small county.
Congress gave out $12.9 million to Ohio for its elections, but that money is apparently gone already. There’s a House-passed $3.6 billion election package that’s already been approved, but it’s now being stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate (it’s part of a much larger $3 trillion spending bill).
All of this, of course, is to say nothing of the potential election interference from foreign and domestic actors alike. Experts are preparing for disinformation online, including inaccurate polling information, fake news stories about COVID-19 outbreaks at polling places, and fake notices that elections have been canceled or moved.
2020 is going to be insane — and there’s a robust amount of data that polling closures and voter suppression will be part of the disenfranchisement of voters, especially Black and Hispanic voters in the South and Southwest. But as far as Kentucky is concerned, the state is more a model for what we should do than it is for what we shouldn’t. And that’s a good lesson on the value and accuracy of viral info being spread on Twitter and Reddit.
A story that matters.
Thousands of U.S. judges who broke laws and their oaths remained on the bench after being caught — and 9 out 10 kept their jobs. In one particularly horrific incident, Judge Les Hayes, in Alabama, sentenced a single mother to 496 days behind bars for failing to pay traffic tickets — a sentence that exceeds Alabama’s jail time for negligent homicide. Marquita Johnson, the mother, lost her three children to foster care, where one daughter was molested and another was physically abused. Hayes’ sentencing was illegal, and he took an unpaid 11-month suspension before returning to work. “I never thought I was doing something wrong,” Hayes said, until he was disciplined. Further reporting found Hayes primarily victimized poor and black defendants. He is one of thousands of judges whose misdeeds were uncovered by a stunning Reuters investigative piece that was published on Monday. Click.
- 241. The number of Republicans who were in the House of Representatives in January of 2017, when Trump took office.
- 115. Since then, the number of Republicans in the House who have either retired, resigned, been defeated or are retiring in 2020.
- 2.8%. Amy McGrath’s margin of victory over Charles Booker in Kentucky’s Democratic primary, meaning she’ll face Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell in 2020.
- 16. The number of states whose residents will need to quarantine for two weeks after traveling to New York, New Jersey or Connecticut.
- 20%. The percent of voters who say the TV news source they trust the most is Fox News, the most of any news source.
- 44%. The percent of voters who say the TV news source they trust the least is Fox News, the most of any news source.
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Have a nice day.
Massachusetts reported zero coronavirus deaths yesterday for the first time since March 20th. The landmark is a huge step forward for a state within spitting distance of where COVID-19 hit hardest: New York and New Jersey. The state also said it was decreasing its total COVID-19 death rate after examining more closely some of its data collection. In late April, the state reported as many as 252 deaths in a single day. It’s being celebrated as a success story in how to limit the spread of the virus — and care for patients. Click.