Sep 10, 2020

The Trump tapes.

The Trump tapes.

Plus, the craziness of the wildfires out west.

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.

Today’s read: 15 minutes.

This is the longest edition of Tangle ever. And there’s a reason for that: there is just too much important stuff happening not to cover. We’re skipping the reader question and “A story that matters” today because of how much space the wildfires out West and the new Bob Woodward book are taking up. Let’s get to it…

A picture from the highway in Oregon that my social media manager sent me yesterday. More on this after our stop story today.


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Quick hits.

  1. Brian Murphy, a senior official from the Department of Homeland Security, is alleging that he was told to stop providing intelligence reports on the threat of Russian interference in the 2020 election. Murphy was in charge of intelligence and analysis at DHS until recently and says he was told to stop in part because it “made the President look bad.” He also alleges he was told to modify other reports, including those about white supremacists, to bring them in line with the president’s public comments. Murphy refused and then filed a whistleblower complaint. “We flatly deny that there is any truth to the merits of Mr. Murphy’s claim,” Alexei Woltornist, a DHS spokesman, said in a statement to The Washington Post.
  2. President Trump released a new list of potential Supreme Court Justices with 20 additional names. Among the suggestions were Sens. Tom Cotton (R-AR), Josh Hawley (R-MO) and Ted Cruz (R-TX). The list is viewed as a campaign statement from Trump, who is trying to energize voters and remind them of the potential his second term will have. “The list is a political statement as much as a working document,” one of the sources told Axios. “You're trying to create as many touch points as possible to people who you want to re-elect him as president, and energize them to help him get re-elected."
  3. The United States announced it would reduce troop levels in Iraq from 5,200 to 3,000, a step toward fulfilling one of President Trump’s campaign promises. The Pentagon cited improvements in Iraqi military’s campaign against ISIS as one of the reasons it was able to make the troop cuts.
  4. 884,000 people filed for jobless benefits last week, the second week in a row fewer than one million people have filed for the benefits. “The number of people newly claiming benefits has gone down steadily since its peak in March but remains well above pre-pandemic highs,” The Washington Post reported. “The previous record for initial weekly claims was 695,000 from 1982, a level that the country has been above for more than five months.”
  5. New York City restaurants will open indoor dining at 25% capacity at the end of this month, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced. The move to indoor dining is a major milestone for New York, which was hit harder by the pandemic than any other state in America.

What D.C. is talking about.

Yesterday, the first details of Bob Woodward’s upcoming book on Donald Trump were released. Woodward, a well-known investigative journalist, sat for 18 interviews with the president from December to July, all of which were recorded. Woodward’s book details Trump’s thinking early on in the coronavirus pandemic, his opinions on North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un and former President Barack Obama and much more.

There is still much we don’t know from the book, as it has not been released publicly yet, though newspapers across the country (and reporters who have been given copies) are now reporting certain details. Woodward is an associate editor at The Washington Post, and yesterday the paper publicly released snippets of the book and several recordings from his interviews with Trump. These are a few of the major highlights that are making waves:

  • Trump told Woodward in February that the coronavirus was deadly and was being spread through the air. “You just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed. And so that’s a very tricky one. That’s a very delicate one. It’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flus,” he says in one recording. At the same time, though, Trump was publicly downplaying the virus to Americans, suggesting it was not unlike the flu and insisting it was going to be “fine” and disappear.
  • In a March interview with Woodward, Trump said he was intentionally playing down the threat of the virus to minimize the panic. “I wanted to always play it down,” the president says in recordings. “I still like playing it down because I don’t want to create a panic.” Trump told Woodward he was alarmed by the virus even while publicly saying it would be gone soon, according to Woodward.
  • On June 3rd, just two days after Trump used federal agents to clear peaceful protesters from Lafayette Square so he could walk to St. John’s Episcopal Church for a photoshoot and press scrum, Trump called Woodward. “We’re going to get ready to send in the military slash National Guard to some of these poor bastards that don’t know what they’re doing, these poor radical lefts,” he tells him.
  • In a conversation about race, Woodward asked Trump if — as white, privileged men — he and Trump had a responsibility to try to better understand the pain and anger felt by Black Americans. “No,” he replies in a mocking tone. “You really drank the Kool-Aid, didn’t you? Just listen to you. Wow. No, I don’t feel that at all.” In a later interview, Trump’s tone changes a bit. Asked by Woodward if there is systemic or institutional racism in the U.S., Trump says “I think there is everywhere. I think probably less here than most places. Or less here than many places.” Asked again if racism is impacting people’s lives in the U.S., he says “I think it is. And it’s unfortunate. But I think it is.”
  • In conversations about Barack Obama, Trump says “I don’t think Obama’s smart… I think he’s highly overrated. And I don’t think he’s a great speaker.” Trump also tells Woodward that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un thought Obama was “an asshole.”
  • Trump also shared new details of his relationship with Kim Jong Un. He tells Woodward “pridefully” how Kim addressed him as “Excellency.” Via WaPo: “Trump remarked that he was awestruck meeting Kim for the first time in 2018 in Singapore, thinking to himself, ‘Holy shit,’ and finding Kim to be ‘far beyond smart.’ Trump also boasted to Woodward that Kim ‘tells me everything,’ including a graphic account of Kim having his uncle killed.”
  • Trump also mused with Woodward about relationships he has with other authoritarian leaders like Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “It’s funny, the relationships I have, the tougher and meaner they are, the better I get along with them,” he says. “You know? Explain that to me someday, okay?”
  • Finally, in another snippet that got a lot of attention, Trump tells Woodward about a nuclear weapons system “nobody’s ever had in this country before. We have stuff that you haven’t even seen or heard about. We have stuff that Putin and Xi have never heard about before.” Woodward said he later found anonymous sources at U.S. intelligence agencies who confirmed the existence of a new weapons system, but were “surprised Trump had disclosed it.”

The revelations from the book started a media firestorm. The ones that got the most attention were related to his handling of COVID-19. Trump held a press conference yesterday, with his press secretary, to address some news outlets’ reporting from the book. “The fact is I’m a cheerleader for this country. I love our country and I don’t want people to be frightened. I don’t want to create panic, as you say,” Trump told reporters. “Certainly, I’m not going to drive this country or the world into a frenzy. We want to show confidence. We want to show strength.”

What the right is saying.

On this, the reactions are quite mixed. Even some of Trump’s staunchest supporters seem taken aback and disappointed, though plenty are defending him. On Fox News, Tucker Carlson was aghast that Trump would sit for an interview with Bob Woodward, but he mostly blamed it on Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC), who reportedly brokered the interviews. Some pointed to Dr. Anthony Fauci, who went on television last night and insisted the president did not distort the threat and he did not remember some of the quotes attributed to him. Rick Moran pointed the finger back at the media, saying it was the press trying to create a panic for ratings that forced Trump to downplay what was happening.

“Remember the ‘2 million’ dead Americans?” Moran asked. “The advice from the surgeon general to stop buying masks? Or Dr. Fauci telling us all is well, remain calm? The WHO was claiming until April that you could catch the coronavirus from any surface. It didn’t take long to debunk that. In the midst of this hysteria, Trump acted. He didn’t get everything right but he didn’t get everything wrong, either. He downplayed the severity of the crisis while the media ratcheted up hysteria over it.”

Steven Hayward made a similar argument. “Normally ‘avoiding a public panic’ would be a reason for praise, but people afflicted with Trump Derangement Syndrome can’t help themselves,” Hayward wrote. “Keep in mind that as late as March 15 NYC’s Communist Mayor Bill de Blasio was still telling people to attend the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, and San Francisco Democrats were telling people that it’s no problem to attend Chinese New Year. Ask yourself: if Trump had sounded a larger alarm than he did (with the CDC having blown the test regime), just imagine what Democrats and their media toadies would have said. They’d accuse Trump of whipping up panic for political reasons.”

In The American Conservative, Rod Dreher summed up many views from more moderate Trump supporters: “No two ways about it, this is terrible for the President.”

“Depressing. Infuriating. A president who admits that he knew from the beginning how bad this was going to be, but did not level with the American people about the seriousness of the Covid threat. That is damned hard to forgive,” Dreher wrote. “However, let me say something that a lot of you won’t agree with. I think that even if Trump had been at the top of his game on Covid, it would not have made a significant difference.”

In Politico, Richard Lowry said “The revelations obviously can’t be chalked up to dubious anonymous sources, because Trump said these things himself, in on-the-record, taped interviews—18 of them.” Lowry argued that Trump’s use of a calm demeanor, insisting “we have it under control,” is fairly common practice for any politician or leader. His lapse, Lowry argues, was failing to say it could be bad from the beginning and in not preparing Americans for the worst.

“While Trump hewed to his rosy scenario, his administration undertook a concerted effort to solve problems related to the response,” Lowry added. “It acquired ventilators, stocked the PPE and testing supply chain, and worked closely with states. This story has gone mostly untold, in large part because the president hasn’t related it in detail and his posture has always been that the end of the pandemic is right around the corner.”

What the left is saying.

What is there to say? The New York Times editorial board noted that “despite his understanding” of the risks, Trump had five rallies in five cities in the month after telling Woodward what he knew.

“Mr. Trump and a great many of his supporters and political allies did play down the severity of the coronavirus and did criticize the public health measures deployed to prevent its spread,” the board wrote. “As a result, the coronavirus spread faster and sickened or killed more people in the United States than in any of its peer nations. If the United States had the same coronavirus fatality rate as Canada, more than 100,000 Americans could still be alive today.”

“Much of the responsibility for the fatal mishandling of the pandemic lies with the president. But with every public lie out of Mr. Trump’s mouth, or on his Twitter feed, how many members of his administration who knew better stayed silent?”

Slate’s Jeremy Stahl focused on the precision of the president’s lies to the American public.

“During a press conference on Feb. 27, for instance, Trump encouraged the public to ‘view this the same as the flu’ and to ‘treat this like you treat the flu.’ Less than three weeks earlier, he told Woodward the disease was ‘more deadly than even your strenuous flus.’… [On March 4] Trump said. ‘When you do have a death … all of a sudden it seems like 3 or 4 percent, which is a very high number, as opposed to a fraction of 1 percent.’ He continued: ‘Personally, I would say the number is way under 1 percent.’ Again, to Woodward less than one month earlier, he said ‘this is more deadly. This is 5 percent.’”

“Woodward’s recording makes it clear that the president was not simply misinformed or being wishful about the virus, but deliberately lying about what he knew,” Stahl wrote.

Glenn Kessler dismissed Trump’s claim that he was trying to avoid a panic, noting that such an approach is in stark contrast to how Trump campaigns on a daily basis.

“That might be news to the President Trump running for reelection,” Kessler said. “His YouTube video channel is filled with apocalyptic images of violence, economic despair and disaster. So are the president’s speeches and news availabilities, including at the same venue where he said he did not want to create panic.”

Some on the left instead criticized Woodward for sitting on the information until his book came out. In Jacobin Magazine, Andrew Perez and David Sirota wrote that while “the nation’s most famous celebrity journalist knew” that coronavirus was airborne and lethal in February thanks to the president’s disclosures, he did not tell the public.

“Let’s be clear: Stories take time to authenticate and fact check,” they wrote. “But Woodward didn’t hold the story for months in order to fact check it. He wasn’t using the time to report it out… history should never forget that America’s most famous journalist had a rare chance to sound an alarm about the pandemic the country was facing and instead chose to stay silent so he could preserve his access to the White House and sell a few more books to a nation locked down in quarantine.”

My take.

There’s a joke going around in the media Twitter world: “If Bob Woodward asks you what time it is, say ‘no comment.’” The fact that Trump sat for these interviews — 18 times — is not that stunning. It’s a reminder that the president is and will always be a creature of vanity, a creature of the press. This is, after all, the same guy who used to call tabloid reporters in New York City pretending to be a publicist named “John Baron” so he could plant a story about himself. Remember that? Shoot, in January, Trump was promoting this book! "I was interviewed by a very, very good writer, reporter," he said. "I can say Bob Woodward. He said he's doing something and this time I said, 'maybe I'll sit down.'"

What is almost as shocking as these revelations is that the people around Trump let him do this. Bob Woodward is Bob Woodward precisely because he gets people to open up and talk honestly — and he knows how to ask the right questions. That’s why, when you go to journalism school, you learn about Bob Woodward. It’s like “Michael Jordan,” you can’t even say the guy’s first name without saying his last name, too.

Of everything revealed in these clips, I find the COVID-19 revelations the least surprising or shocking. It’s news that he admitted it, sure, but if it’s news that the president was downplaying COVID-19, then I don’t know what to tell you. The dots here were pretty easy to connect. He’s the president, so he has access to the highest levels of intelligence information in the world. Dr. Fauci already admitted that he and the Surgeon General insisted people didn’t need masks in order to preserve them for the frontline workers. Of course Trump knew that it was not the flu. Of course Trump knew it wasn’t going to go away. He was being told that every day by his own experts, by the doctors he watched on TV, by experts in his own administration, and by the public, who lambasted him every time he claimed it was disappearing.

Does it make it more sinister to hear him say it on tape? Sure. But far more eye-catching to me are the other things that way fewer people are talking about.

For one, the president bragged about a top-secret nuclear weapons program. I’m sorry, pardon me? He literally told a reporter — maybe the most famous reporter on the planet — that he had helped build a nuclear weapons program China and Russia didn’t even know about. Apparently it did not occur to him that China and Russia not knowing about it meant maybe he shouldn’t share it with the press.

Two, he spoke lovingly (again) about Kim Jong Un, even bragging that Kim had shared the details of how he killed his uncle. Let me say that again: the President of the United States bragged to Bob Woodward that North Korea’s authoritarian leader shared the details of how he murdered his own family member to maintain power. And Trump reveled in it. There aren’t words to describe how completely deranged that is. The love letters are just as bad. Trump is heaping praise on a man who starves his own citizens, kills them for trying to leave the country and locks them in a prison of media propaganda so they don’t know anything about the outside world. This is not okay.

Three, Woodward also shares a number of alarming stories on “deep background,” i.e. quotes he is taking from sources he doesn’t reveal. He quotes Dr. Fauci as saying the leadership was “rudderless” during the pandemic and Trump’s attention span “is like a minus number... his sole purpose is to get reelected.”

He frames Jim Mattis (former defense secretary) and Daniel Coats (former director of national intelligence) as being totally alarmed by Trump. These are people who worked side-by-side with the president. Mattis went to the National Cathedral to pray for the nation’s fate, Woodward writes. “There may come a time when we have to take collective action” since Trump is “dangerous. He’s unfit,” Woodward quotes Mattis as saying. At one point, Coats says to Mattis: “To him [Trump], a lie is not a lie. It’s just what he thinks. He doesn’t know the difference between the truth and a lie.”

Woodward even has this story from a dinner with Coats, Coats’s wife, Vice President Mike Pence and Trump at the White House.

Coats, a former senator from Indiana, was recruited into the administration by Vice President Pence, and his wife is quoted as recalling a dinner at the White House when she interacted with Pence.

“I just looked at him [Pence], like, how are you stomaching this?” Marsha Coats said, according to Woodward. “I just looked at him like, this is horrible. I mean, we made eye contact. I think he understood. And he just whispered in my ear, ‘Stay the course.’ ”

As for Woodward, the explanation for why he kept this stuff quiet until now is really not that complicated. He made a deal with Trump to record these interviews, to run them on the record, and said that they would be part of a forthcoming book. Contrary to popular belief, he never signed an agreement to embargo the publication of the interviews. But if he had released them or Trump’s comments publicly he would have faced predictable backlash. He also defended the decision to The Washington Post by saying that he wanted to add proper context and confirm the stories he was writing about before publishing them, and he needed the book to do that. These all strike me as reasonable defenses. If he had leaked them anonymously, nobody would have believed them. If he had shared the tapes it would have been obvious who had done it.

We just had the debacle about Trump’s comments regarding U.S. soldiers in The Atlantic and saw what happens when a story runs with anonymous sources. Woodward made the right choice to wait until the book was coming out, to release the information with recordings, with additional reporting, and to make it absolutely clear that this stuff is not “fake news” or anonymous crap. Also: If you’re upset that Woodward didn’t share Trump’s true understanding about COVID-19, but not upset that Trump himself didn’t share his true feelings about COVID-19, I think that’s worth some introspection on your part.

I know many of you have questioned my left-leaning takes about police reform and Trump in this newsletter recently. And I know I’ve made it clear I do not, generally speaking, support this president. I do not think he’s fit for the job, and I think this latest bit of news only reinforces that position and bolsters my argument. I’ve been as transparent and open-minded as I can be while I continue to point out the things Trump is right about. But you don’t have to take this reaction from me. I’ll just quote, again, the words of an actual Trump voter and staunch conservative, Rod Dreher: “Depressing. Infuriating… this is damned hard to forgive.”


I wanted to dedicate a section to this because I’m not sure east coast folks are properly grasping what is happening out west right now. Last night, I heard from aunts, uncles, cousins and my social media manager Magdalena who all live up and down the West coast from Fresno, California to Bend, Oregon. What’s happening out there is extremely scary.

A combination of unusual heat, high winds, downed power lines and lightning storms is setting off uncontrollable wildfires. 2.5 million acres of land have already burned in California. Entire communities in Washington and Oregon have been displaced and their homes destroyed. This is what the wildfire tracker from InciWeb looks like on the West Coast:

I had a brief email exchange with my aunt who lives in a rural area in Oregon. Because her house is on a well, she can pump herself water in the night hours when they have to turn the power off (lots of folks aren’t using power because the risk of a downed powerline starting a fire is serious). Without power, without running water, without lights, there is very little air circulation in the house. But the smoke is bad enough that they are sleeping with N95 masks they got a few months ago as protection from COVID-19.

“I feel the worst for the animals and wild birds and creatures. We can go inside and get some relief, they really can't,” she said. “It is evident as soon as the sprinklers go on. We aim them into the leaves of the maple tree or spruce by the house and the creatures immediately gather in the mist, in the droplets and spray, bees hover in the air, hummers zip in and out of the mist, all the songbirds take up in the branches of the trees and enjoy the showers. We're keeping extra water dishes out all over the place as well. It's interesting how everyone shares in this crisis — no predatory behavior seems to be going on — just making room for everyone to get access.”

Magdalena, who runs Tangle’s social media accounts, went to the Oregon coast earlier this week for a few days off with her partner, who fights wildfires for a living. After she left, I didn’t hear from her for a day or two. Downed lines impacted cell phone service. They took a two hour drive to where she and her partner camped, and then it took them eight hours to get home because of all the detours they had to make around the wildfires. She documented the insane story of her 48 hours driving through Oregon and the wildfires, which I’ve put in a Google document and you can read here.

She sent me photos from their trip. The first is at the top of the newsletter. Here is a second  other-worldly picture she sent me from the highway yesterday:

This image is from the middle of the day. And they’re happening up and down the coast.

I want to say something else, too, because it’s not said enough: the cause of wildfires can vary a great deal. Sometimes it’s an idiot blowing stuff up because they’re having a gender reveal party. Sometimes it’s a campfire gone wrong. Sometimes it’s a lightning strike or a downed power line, or something else that’s random or unintentional.

But we do know what makes fires worse: dry earth and wind. And both of these things can be attributed directly to climate change. California and Oregon are experiencing unprecedented heat waves right now. In Death Valley, California, temperatures hit 130 degrees in mid-August, the hottest ever on record anywhere on earth. This past weekend the temperatures in Southern California hit 121 degrees in another heat wave. Then, an unusually early cold front swept through Colorado bringing heavy snow to the Rockies. But cold and hot also do something else: they create wind and turmoil in the atmosphere.

And that wind rushed up the coast through California and Oregon. This isn’t just conjecture or anecdotal, even if these extraordinary events end up being the result of bad circumstances. Fire season is already two or three months longer than it was in the 1970s. "There is little doubt that we're witnessing an acceleration of fire activity in the West —  be it in terms of burned area, number of large fires, fire growth, and of course direct and indirect impacts to people," Dr. John Abatzoglou, a climate professor at the University of California Merced, told CBS. 17 of California’s 20 largest wildfires ever have occurred since 2000.

“On Wednesday NOAA released its latest State of the Climate Report, which finds that just during the month of August the U.S. was hit by four different billion-dollar disasters: two hurricanes, huge wildfires and an extraordinary Midwest derecho,” CBS News added.

I know for a lot of people 2020 has been an awful year with too much stuff to think and worry about, but large chunks of the West Coast are literally on fire right now — with burnt orange skies covering metropolitan areas in the middle of the day. It’s worth stopping to acknowledge that this is not normal, and that we know, at least in part, what is accelerating the severity of these fires.


  • 63%. The percentage of Americans who think that social media is effective at influencing policy decisions.
  • 58%. The percentage of Americans who think that social media is effective at changing people’s minds about political or social issues.
  • 79%. The percentage of Americans who think that social media distracts people from issues that are truly important.
  • 59%. The percentage of Americans who believe that civil rights for Black Americans have improved in their lifetime, the lowest percentage since Gallup started asking the question in 1995.
  • 89%. The percentage of Americans in 2011 who believed that civil rights for Black Americans had improved in their lifetime, the highest percentage since Gallup started asking the question in 1995.
  • 52%. The percentage of Americans who believe Joe Biden cares “a lot” or “some” about the needs and problems of U.S. veterans and service members.
  • 43%. The percentage of Americans who believe Donald Trump cares “a lot” or “some” about the needs and problems of U.S. veterans and service members.
  • 19%. The percentage of Americans who believe Joe Biden “doesn’t care at all” about the needs and problems of U.S. veterans and service members.
  • 31%. The percentage of Americans who believe Donald Trump “doesn’t care at all” about the needs and problems of U.S. veterans and service members.

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Have a nice day.

Teen vaping has fallen dramatically this year. The number of high school students regularly using e-cigarettes was a borderline epidemic but has dropped significantly in the last year after use soared. “Among high school students, 19.6 percent reported using an e-cigarette at least once in the prior 30 days, down sharply from 27.5 percent in 2019. That amounted to a decline of 1 million regular users — to 3 million, down from 4.1 million a year earlier,” The New York Times reported. The high use rate for teens is still considered dangerous, but this is the first time since 2016 there has been any progress in reducing the number of teens using e-cigs.

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