Plus, what can POTUS do during the lame-duck session?
I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then “my take.” You can read Tangle for free or subscribe for Friday editions, and you can reach me anytime by replying to this email. If someone sent you this email, they’re asking you to sign up. You can do that by clicking here.
Today’s read: 12 minutes.
The shake-ups at the Pentagon. Plus, what can Trump do during a lame-duck session?
Defense Secretary Mark Esper speaking from the Pentagon. (DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando)
Quite a few people wrote in about Tuesday’s issue on the COVID-19 vaccine, and I’d like to share some pushback to “My take.”
Jeff from Aston, PA, said “You called Trump ‘prescient’ in talking about a timeline for developments relating to Covid. Trump -- the guy who has set at least a half dozen dates for when the disease would simply ‘go away,’ including asserting just last week that it would vanish right after the election. I know you have chronicled many of those lies in the past but, as you noted in welcoming new readers, so many people may not have that context handy. Trump said a vaccine was possible by late October and medical experts... largely agreed, but urged caution about getting tied to a date (presumably because of Trump's aforementioned history of outright lying on this topic). Through absolutely no fault of his own, there were some promising results released in early November that suggest that a vaccine could become available to a small set of people by the end of the year. That's ‘prescient’?”
Russell from Knoxville, Tennessee said, “I have worked in pharmaceutical clinical research for 15 years (not vaccines, psych and neuro — I work for a Contract Research Organization that is hired by pharma companies to run their trials) and I think it is safe to say that regardless of government involvement, pharma companies would have risen to the occasion to work on covid vaccines/treatments. That's not to say that having money pumped into their operations for conducting trials and production doesn't help... but Pfizer certainly didn't need that to do what they've done. Considering this, I think it's a reach to give Trump any credit for this accomplishment.”
Also, on a personal note: Thank you for all the feedback over the last week, both positive and negative. I am still climbing out of an email hole, and currently responding to readers who wrote in about four days ago — so I’m doing my best to catch up as fast as I can! I should be back to everyone with my head above water by the end of this weekend. As always, interacting with readers one on one and having a dialogue is crucial to Tangle and one of my favorite parts of this newsletter. Write in anytime.
- The coronavirus continues to spread rapidly across the U.S., and more than 144,000 new cases were recorded on Wednesday, another all-time high. New York, Minnesota and New Jersey all reinstituted curfews on bars, restaurants and gyms.
- Joe Biden named Democratic veteran Ronald Klain as his chief of staff yesterday (the role currently being held by Mark Meadows for Donald Trump). Klain served as Biden’s chief of staff when he was vice president and oversaw the Obama administration’s response to Ebola.
- Trump’s chief of staff Mark Meadows held a meeting yesterday to plot which conservative policy objectives the administration could achieve before leaving office, even as the president refuses to concede. Meanwhile, President Trump is telling friends he wants to start a digital media company to clobber Fox News.
- Biden advisers say they are planning a sweeping overhaul of Trump’s immigration agenda, including a full restoration of DACA and a removal of travel and immigration restrictions on 13 mostly African or predominantly Muslim countries.
- The president is “pursuing a patchwork of legal attacks in key states” where he will “mount a long-shot effort to try to prevent officials from certifying the results,” according to a Wall Street Journal report.
What D.C. is talking about.
Mark Esper and the Pentagon. On Monday, President Trump fired Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, writing in a Twitter post that he had “terminated” the man who oversees the Pentagon. The Defense Secretary is the highest-ranking military official in America, second only to the president, and Esper was Trump’s fourth Defense Secretary (James Mattis, Patrick Shanahan and Richard Spencer all served in acting or appointed capacities previously).
Given Esper’s importance in overseeing the military, his firing immediately set off questions and concerns. He was replaced by Christopher Miller, who was the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, having served in the military from 1983 to 2014, and previously worked as an assistant defense secretary for special operations. Miller immediately received a series of briefings about current U.S. military operations and the nuclear codes, U.S. officials told The Wall Street Journal.
Esper’s firing comes after he publicly disagreed with the president in June about the use of military personnel in U.S. cities to quell unrest. He’s tried and failed to reduce U.S. forces around the world but sought to grow the Navy and shrink the ground forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, where President Trump has at times advocated for a total troop withdrawal.
Following Esper’s firing, there’s been a purge of senior civilians at the Pentagon. Three men who are all considered “Trump loyalists” were promoted to top Pentagon posts in acting capacities: Kashyap Patel, Anthony J. Tata and Ezra Cohen-Watnick. They’ll still be serving under Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, the head of the military’s Central Command, who each have far more stature and experience than the new appointees. Tata in particular has raised eyebrows, as his previous appointment was turned down by the Republican-controlled Senate over some disparaging comments in the past, including one where he called President Barack Obama a “terrorist leader.”
While the newest members of the Pentagon are expected to facilitate a transition to President-elect Biden, there are also questions about the reasons for firing Esper and what plans may be afoot in the coming weeks.
What the right is saying.
The right is divided on this one. More traditional Republicans liked Esper and view a move like this as too chaotic during a transition, though they are calling the left’s reaction overblown. Others believe Trump was right to let him go. And others, like former National Security adviser John Bolton, say the purge poses a major threat.
“Former Secretary of Defense Mark Esper must have felt like a condemned man without an execution date,” Rick Moran wrote for PJ Media. “Since his very public disagreement with Donald Trump last summer when he opposed using the Insurrection Act to deal with violence in big cities, he must have known the writing was on the wall… And he kept his mouth shut. Trump might have appreciated that with half his former cabinet members sniping at him from offstage. But the public spat with the president couldn’t go unpunished. Esper had to go, not only because he questioned his boss’s wisdom, but because he never gave full-throated support to him.”
“Donald Trump’s dilemma from day one of his presidency was that he wanted to ‘drain the swamp’ and shake things up — but he needed establishment government-types to help him do it,” Moran added. “Esper, like other establishment national security figures in the administration, never could get used to the idea that Trump was in charge. The president’s abrasive personality no doubt played a role in the pushback. But Esper should have realized that when Trumpworld met the establishment, there were only two possible outcomes: submission or termination.”
“The reaction to Esper’s firing poured in from Capitol Hill yesterday with Democrats excoriating Trump, and Republicans for the most part either remaining silent or limiting their statements to praise for Esper, with no mention of Trump,” Jamie McIntyre wrote in The Washington Examiner. “Esper knew he might be fired and had already written his resignation letter and final message to the troops and the Pentagon’s civilian workers. Esper had been on the outs with his boss since June when he opposed Trump’s desire to invoke the Insurrection Act of 1807 to use active-duty troops for crowd control in cities experiencing violent protests over racial justice, and when at a Pentagon news conference, Esper admitted publicly he had been hoodwinked into accompanying the president to a photo op at a church across from the White House.”
In The Washington Post, Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton wrote a scathing rebuke of the president’s latest moves, saying time is running out “for Republicans who coddle him” to take action.
“Trump is engaging in what could well be a systematic purge of his own administration, starting with the utterly unjustified firing of Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper this week and continuing through high- and mid-level civilian offices in the department,” Bolton said. “Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, head of the National Nuclear Safety Administration, was forced to resign. Washington is filled with rumors that the CIA and FBI directors are next. This is being done with just 10 weeks left in the administration. All transitions bring uncertainty, but to decapitate substantial parts of the national security apparatus during such a period for no reason other than personal pique is irresponsible and dangerous. Republicans know this.”
What the left is saying.
The left is calling the moves a major national security threat.
“The best-case scenario is that President Trump’s firing-by-Twitter of Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper on Monday was a reckless act of vindictiveness by a lame-duck president who wanted to settle a score,” the Washington Post editorial board wrote. “The worst is that it is the beginning of a decapitation of national security agencies that could leave the country rudderless at a sensitive moment, and perhaps open the way for Mr. Trump to engage in dangerous adventurism at home or abroad. Either way, Mr. Esper’s ‘termination,’ as the president styled it, underlines that Mr. Trump will remain a serious threat to the national interest for the next 10 weeks…
“Mr. Esper is the most prominent of a clutch of officials removed since the election, including the deputy administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development and the chief of the program that produces the federal government’s annual climate change report,” it wrote. “And they may not be the last: Widespread reports have said that Mr. Trump may dismiss CIA Director Gina Haspel and FBI Director Christopher A. Wray. Both are highly competent and nonpartisan professionals; the FBI director’s 10-year term is meant to insulate him from politics. Nevertheless, Mr. Trump reportedly holds grudges against both for failing to support his reelection campaign by releasing sensitive intelligence or launching investigations of his opponents. A broader purge would be an invitation to U.S. adversaries to take advantage by launching aggressions they otherwise would not contemplate; a Russian intervention in Belarus or a Chinese foray against Taiwan, for example. At worst, Mr. Trump may be contemplating desperate actions to maintain himself in office.”
Dana Milbank wrote that the president was “now sabotaging national security to soothe his bruised ego.”
“So this will be President Trump’s parting gift to the nation: He is deliberately sabotaging the national security of the United States,” Milbank wrote. “His refusal to accept the results, even though it wasn’t a particularly close election, has taken an insidious new turn now that his political appointee in charge of authorizing the start of the Biden transition is refusing to give the okay. The delay undercuts all aspects of government’s functioning and leaves the country needlessly vulnerable to security threats…
“We’ve seen this before,” he added. “In 2000, the delayed transition ‘hampered the new administration in identifying, recruiting, clearing, and obtaining Senate confirmation of key appointees,’ the 9/11 Commission concluded. To avoid a possible repeat of such a vulnerability, the commission recommended that ‘we should minimize as much as possible the disruption of national security policymaking during the change of administrations’ so that ‘transitions can work more effectively and allow new officials to assume their new responsibilities as quickly as possible’… Trump is now actively undermining that recommendation — for no purpose other than ego.”
One could fairly easily paint a dire picture of the situation we’re in: the president is simultaneously contesting the results of a decisive election loss, in court trying to overturn those results, and purging top officials who sit in the most important national security seats in America. Most liberals I see who spend a lot of time on Twitter are looking for every opportunity to use the word “coup,” and Trump is making it a lot easier for them.
But let’s all take a breath. Firing Esper is nothing out of the ordinary in the context of the last four years, and it’s a move many of us were expecting months ago. Esper, like Gen. Mattis before him, took on his post only to find himself face to face with a president who did not share his worldview, even if they shared some goals. The two bumped heads from the start, and in Esper’s “exit interview” with the Military Times he took on much the same tone that many former cabinet members have when they’ve spoken about the president: he positioned himself as the adult in the room.
Far from trying to execute a coup, the most likely scenario here appears to be two-pronged: One, Trump wanted vengeance. Regardless of whether you hate or love the president, there is little argument about the fact that he revels in crushing anyone who disobeys or undermines him. Esper surely hit both of those notes. Does it risk our national security and will it make the Biden transition more difficult? There seems to be a consensus that it does and it will.
Second, the most optimistic outlook here is that Trump is planning to defy some of the traditional D.C. military leadership and pull off a major troop drawdown before he leaves office. Of course, there are ways that could end terribly — namely if it’s tackled in a ham handed way that leaves our troops or our allies in danger. But Trump’s stated goals to “bring the troops home” and end our neverending wars have always been some of my favorite aspects of his presidency, and if he takes a last-second shot on executing them in his final days it could be a win.
The hiring of Ret. Army Col. Douglas Macgregor, an outspoken advocate of bringing the troops home from Afghanistan (our longest war, now on year 20), is the clearest signal yet that’s what this is about. One White House official told Axios that Trump’s objective was to get a large number of the troops in Afghanistan home by the end of the year, and this could be the first step toward that goal.
Will it pan out? I’m not sure. Trump has had four years to significantly reduce our troop numbers and military interventions and he’s had very mixed results, most disappointingly by overseeing an expansion of the drone wars that were one of the greatest stains of Obama’s time in office. On top of that, both Macgregor and Tata have a well-documented history of revolting remarks about Muslims and immigration (Macgregor once advocated using deadly force on the U.S.-Mexico border). I’ll be happy when neither of them are near the Pentagon command center, but if their final act as high-ranking government officials is a successful troop drawdown in Afghanistan you’ll likely see that celebrated here.
Your questions, answered.
Q: I noticed you Tweeted something about how we need to buckle up for the next 70+ days while Trump is a lame duck. My question is -– how much damage could he really do during this period? Is there any history of one-term presidents doing anything destructive during this time? What should we expect/prepare ourselves for?
— Lex, Washington, D.C.
Tangle: It depends what you consider “damage.” We’re 69 days away from inauguration day now, and for Trump’s supporters, the next two months will be about cementing as much of his legacy as he can. He is still the president, still has a majority in the Senate, and still wields an incredible amount of power to make it as hard as possible for President Joe Biden to undo some of his top achievements.
Frankly, while the term “lame duck” evokes a sort of incapacitated leader, the opposite is often true. Unconstrained by concerns over political repercussions, presidents in the lame duck session are often more forceful and adamant about what they want than at any other time in office. Perhaps the most well-known of the lame duck sessions in recent memory was Bill Clinton’s in 2000, when George W. Bush was coming into office after the recount. On their way out, Clinton staffers infamously removed the “W’s” from keyboards, stole antique doorknobs and did about $15,000 worth of damage in pranks, according to Quartz.
More seriously, Clinton issued a series of clemencies and pardons for political allies and family members who had committed all kinds of fraud and tax evasion. One might expect a similar slew of pardons from Trump on his way out the door, given the pardons he’s already granted while in office. Of course, as mentioned, the transition from Clinton to Bush was also disrupted by the recount and court battles, which created so much chaos it’s often blamed for making the September 11th attacks easier to pull off.
Historically speaking, Herbert Hoover probably takes the cake for lame-duck malfeasance. As TIME Magazine recalled, in 1933 Hoover spent his final months in office doing everything he could to destroy the prospects of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, despite the fact that FDR won the election by campaigning on that promise.
So, what could Trump do? The president’s strongest focus during his administration has been on reducing legal immigration, and I suspect that will be one of the enduring parts of his legacy. I can’t imagine the next 69 days going by without him focusing on that. The most likely prospect appears to be finalizing a rule that makes the standards more strict around H-1B visas, which allow U.S. companies to hire skilled foreign workers. Politico also reported he was considering an executive order to give money to parents who want to open their own private or parochial schools to buck COVID-19 lockdowns.
Pardons will certainly be on the table. Clinton, Bush and Obama all signed various clemencies and pardons for everyone from political allies to non-violent criminals serving draconian sentences. Up to this point, Trump has already issued more pardons and clemencies during his presidency than is typical, as most presidents usually issue them only in the last few months of their terms.
I’d also expect some classified information disclosures. Trump has been harping on the “Russia hoax” for years and has promised repeatedly to declassify documents related to the investigations into his campaign and presidency. Gina Haspel, the head of the CIA, recently warned a group of lawmakers that such a move would endanger sources on the ground. From a journalistic and curiosity standpoint, I’d welcome a giant trove of secret government documents to look over. I’m not sure how likely it is, but if Trump also fires Haspel, that will be the telltale sign it’s coming.
There has been a lot of noise about destructive executive orders but I would mostly disregard that. Any orders signed now would face immediate legal challenges and wouldn’t be implemented before he left office, and a Biden administration could easily reverse them in two months.
But the president has proven to be unpredictable. So I’m sure there are some things here I’m not considering, and “only time will tell” is probably the most appropriate response. These are some of the things I’ll be watching, though. Reminder: You can ask a question too. All you have to do is reply to this email and write in.
A story that matters.
As the coronavirus pandemic enters its ninth month, and with the spread of the virus threatening more lockdowns, economists are warning that the prolonged downturn could translate to permanent wounds to the U.S. employment outlook. About one-third of unemployed workers have been without a job for 27 weeks or more, and the longer someone is unemployed, the harder it is to re-enter the workforce. While there have been more gains than losses recently, some people have fallen off unemployment benefit rolls because benefits expired after 26 weeks in certain states. The long-term job losses are expected to ramp up pressure on Congress to pass another wave of stimulus to address businesses and unemployed workers.
- 206. The number of counties that shifted from Obama to Trump in 2016.
- 19. The number of those counties that Biden has won back so far in the 2020 race.
- Zero. The number of states that saw a decrease in new COVID-19 infections in the last week, according to the COVID Tracking Project.
- 200. The largest margin of victory necessary in Arizona for a recount to be triggered in the presidential race.
- 11,635. Joe Biden’s lead in Arizona after the latest batch of votes were counted this morning.
- $62,898. The real median household income in 2016 when Donald Trump entered office.
- $68,703. The real median household income in 2019 before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S.
- 6. The number of days until counties in Georgia begin sending out mail-in ballots for the January 5th Senate runoffs.
See you tomorrow?
Tangle hits your inbox Monday through Thursday — but paying subscribers are guaranteed Friday editions, too. The newsletter on Friday takes a different form: typically I’ll write a personal essay, do a deep dive, transcribe an interview with someone in the political world, or do some original reporting on a topic readers have asked about. I occasionally send Friday editions to free sign-ups as well, but subscribing is a good way to support this project for the long-term and guarantee you get the Friday newsletters. Subscriptions start at $4.16 a month, less than the average person spends on a single trip to Starbucks.
Have a nice day.
Earlier this week, ESPN had to lay off close to 300 employees as the media industry continues to bleed revenue (hence Tangle subscriptions!) One of those employees was Chris Cote, a longtime producer on the Dan Le Batard Show. Instead of accepting his firing, though, Le Batard took to Twitter to announce that he had not been notified or consulted about Cote being let go. In defiance, Le Batard hired Cote back with money out of his pocket, bringing him back on as his personal assistant and giving him a raise in the process. "We have spent the last five days trying to figure out what it is that we can do with this,” Le Batard said, “and I’m actually happy to report—and this is a pretty cool thing to be able to report because some creativity was required from us in order to get here—but I’m going to hire Chris Cote as my personal assistant to fill the role, with a raise on his present salary to fill the raise vacated by Allyson Turner. I will cover the raise. I will cover the entire thing.”