Plus, a special Valentine's Day podcast and a reader question about Biden dying after the election.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 11 minutes.

Today, we are covering Trump's comments about NATO and a reader question about what would happen if Biden died after being re-elected. Plus, a special Valentine's Day podcast.

Happy Valentine's Day.

Around this time last year, we had just released a podcast series where I interviewed five random Tangle readers. As an impromptu idea, I decided to extend the series and interview my wife, Phoebe, for Valentine’s Day. It ended up being one of the most popular podcast episodes we’ve ever published. So, at the risk of ruining it with a sequel, we decided to run it back and start a little tradition. Phoebe and I sat down last week to talk about her experience in law school, her view of the 2024 election, our relationship, the challenges of being married to the guy who runs Tangle, and her first impressions of all the people on our staff. Then I asked her a few questions people submitted on Twitter and she came prepared with four questions to ask me on the air. You can listen to the episode here.

P.S. We’re leaning into the Valentine’s Day spirit, and you’re going to get a very unusual second email from us today announcing our organization’s Valentine. Keep an eye out!

Quick hits.

  1. The House of Representatives impeached Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas in a 214-213 vote for allegedly failing to enforce border and immigration laws. He is the second cabinet member in U.S. history to be impeached. The Senate is expected to dismiss the charges. (The impeachment)
  2. Democrat Tom Suozzi, a former congressman, won the special election for New York's 3rd Congressional District. Suozzi flipped the seat that was held by former Rep. George Santos (R). (The race)
  3. The latest inflation report was mixed, with the Consumer Price Index in January falling to 3.1% in year-over-year growth, down from a 3.4% rise in December. But that was higher than analysts' predictions of 2.9%, and on a month-to-month basis it rose 0.3%, an increase from last month's 0.2%. (The numbers
  4. Workers from Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash are planning a strike today over fair pay and safety. Roughly 130,000 drivers are expected to decline rides to and from airports between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. local time. (The strike
  5. Russia put Estonia's prime minister on a wanted list for removing Soviet-era monuments. (The list) Separately, Ukraine says it sank the Caesar Kunikov, a large Russian naval ship, off the coast of Crimea. (The claim)

Today's topic.

Trump's NATO comments. During a rally in South Carolina on Saturday, former President Donald Trump sparked controversy with comments about how he would respond if a member of NATO that wasn't meeting its defense obligations was attacked.

“NATO was busted until I came along,” Trump said at the rally. “I said, ‘Everybody’s gonna pay.’ They said, ‘Well, if we don’t pay, are you still going to protect us?’ I said, ‘Absolutely not.’ They couldn’t believe the answer."

Trump recounted how "one of the presidents of a big country" asked him if the U.S. would defend them from an invasion by Russia if they weren't paying.

“No, I would not protect you,” Trump recalled saying to that president. “In fact, I would encourage them to do whatever the hell they want. You gotta pay. You gotta pay your bills.”

Reminder: NATO stands for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. It is a military alliance established in 1949 after World War II to function as a counter to Soviet armies stationed throughout central and eastern Europe. After the Cold War ended, NATO has continued on as a military organization of 31 nations committed to defending each other's sovereignty. The fundamental purpose of NATO is described in Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty:

An armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all; and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defense recognized by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.

During President Trump's time in office, he repeatedly complained that other countries in NATO did too little to contribute to its defense and finances, often criticizing Europe for allowing the United States to carry an outsized burden. NATO has a non-binding target that each member spends a minimum of 2% of gross domestic product on their own defense, but most countries don't meet that target. In 2022, just seven of the 31 members did, but NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said that number will be more than half sometime this year.

Responding to Trump, President Biden called his comments "un-American."

"The former president has sent a dangerous, and shockingly, frankly, un-American signal to the world. Just a few days ago, Trump gave an invitation to Putin to invade some of our NATO allies," Biden said at the White House. "He said if an ally didn't spend enough money on defense, he would encourage Russia to, 'Do whatever the hell it wants.' Can you imagine? A former president of the United States saying that. The whole world heard it, and the worst thing is he means it."

Today, we're going to examine some responses to Trump's comments and the debate about NATO from the right and left, then my take.

What the right is saying.

  • Some on the right are disappointed in Trump’s comments and suggest NATO remains vital to U.S. interests. 
  • Many criticize Trump’s rhetoric but say his underlying critique of other NATO countries was sound. 
  • Others say the comments are being distorted by the media. 

National Review’s editors wrote “NATO is worth defending.” 

“NATO has been an extraordinary American success story. It held the line in Western Europe throughout the Cold War, and it did so peacefully, saving countless U.S. lives. It underpinned America’s leadership of the West, militarily, politically, and economically,” the editors said. “With Russia now engaged on a revanchist mission, most bloodily in Ukraine, it is essential that no signal be sent out of the U.S. that could lead Moscow to think that it could get away with attacking a smaller NATO member.”

Some NATO countries “have much more to do, and there is still reason enough for Trump to bring up again the issue of those that are not pulling their weight. But, however successful his past bludgeoning has been, he needs to tread more delicately now. The Pax Americana is visibly crumbling, making the world a more dangerous place. This means that the U.S. should take even more care not to give its enemies — or its allies — any reason to question its resolve. Casting doubt on NATO’s collective defense does just that.”

The Washington Examiner editorial board said “NATO outrage at Trump is deserved — so is outrage at Europe’s fecklessness.”

“Trump’s suggestion that he would ‘encourage’ Vladimir Putin to launch an attack on a U.S. ally is plainly unconscionable. Even if he only said this to emphasize NATO’s reliance on America, it is an outrageous dereliction of his duty to choose his words carefully. Trump is publicly musing about being open to wars of aggression against people who are American friends,” the board wrote. “Trump’s words cede political space to China as it seeks to woo American allies with the offer of massive investment in return for their political obedience. This threatens the foundations of an international order that has given America and its allies wealth and security since 1945.”

“The ironic fact, however, is that beneath Trump’s crass delivery, there lies an important truth. The notion that NATO members who fail to spend 2% of their economy on defense should not expect unconditional American protection is not an outrageous one. Indeed, it is outrageous that they do so,” the board said. “A 2% minimum on defense spending is reasonable, especially amid renewed Russian military imperialism. Western European complaints of economic challenges in meeting NATO’s target are utterly false. They fail to get there because they arrogantly presume American forbearance.”

In PJ Media, Matt Margolis argued “the media is lying about Trump’s NATO comments.”

“In light of the terrible week that Joe Biden had, it was inevitable that the media would try to drum up some fake controversy about Donald Trump. In fact, they happily obliged by grossly distorting comments Trump made during a campaign speech,” Margolis wrote. “These characterizations are false. Since when has the media covered Trump accurately?”

“Before making the comments about NATO, Trump was discussing the substantial financial commitment the United States had made to Ukraine, surpassing $200 billion, and the disparity between the U.S. contribution and that of European nations, which collectively stands at $25 billion. He said [this] wasn't fair because the war in Ukraine affects them more directly, and the economy of the United States is roughly equivalent to the size of the collective economy of the European nations,” Margolis said. “This wasn't a warning to NATO allies that he's going to let Russia do ‘whatever the hell they want.’ It was a story about how he got NATO nations to pay their commitments while he was president.”

What the left is saying.

  • The left is alarmed by Trump’s comments and worries his posturing has already damaged NATO’s credibility. 
  • Some contend that Trump is openly aligning himself with anti-American interests. 
  • Others malign the press for equating Biden’s gaffes with Trump’s harmful rhetoric. 

In Bloomberg, Marc Champion wrote “Trump may keep the U.S. in NATO, but the damage is done.”

“Threatening to abandon Article V undermines its deterrent value, without having to actually do anything. It’s as though in a real estate negotiation, every hardball threat didn’t just pressure the other side, but also caused a part of the building to collapse. Be convincing enough about US disinterest in defending Lithuania, for example (Trump once called the idea crazy), and the whole edifice of deterrence in Europe falls. The temptation of adversaries to test NATO’s collective defense commitment could only grow,” Champion said. 

“Make no mistake, Europe’s NATO members need to spend more on their own defense. Every American president since the end of the Cold War has felt the same, and many Europeans have too,” Champion added. “Whether Europe will be able to respond fast enough to the ongoing US retrenchment that merely Trump caricatures is a different question. Yet it’s what Putin actually does that’s changing the security assessments behind defense spending decisions. A Trump 2.0 won’t alter that, but in leveraging Article V commitments to try, he does have the power to make a bad security situation in Europe infinitely worse.”

In The Daily Beast, David Rothkopf said “Trump is telling us he’s an enemy of the American people.”

“Trump made it crystal clear—once again—that he not only doesn’t support the international order that so many of our forebears fought to create and defend, but he would welcome it if one of America’s vilest enemies attacked our closest friends and allies in Europe. In fact, he said he would ‘encourage’ it,” Rothkopf wrote. “Quite a statement considering their recent history of war crimes in Ukraine and elsewhere.”

“NATO members have committed to contribute 2 percent of GDP toward our collective defense. But they don’t pay dues. NATO is not a protection racket in which the U.S. plays the role of the gangsters who run it,” Rothkopf said. “Trump’s feigned concern about NATO contributions has little to do with the most shocking elements of his stance: his contempt for our allies and his support for our enemies… the MAGA GOP [has] demonstrated that undermining our security (and that of our allies), while advancing Russian interests, is now a core tenet of its politics.”

In USA Today, Rex Huppke argued “Trump's NATO threat gets less attention than Biden's gaffes. Only one puts Americans at risk.”

“Trump’s cavalier NATO comment is as ignorant as it is unhinged, and as dangerous as it is stupid… But Trump threatening to upend Western democracy was just one of the notable things he did since Biden mixed up the presidents of Mexico and Egypt,” Huppke wrote. “If we’re going to argue that the level of media hysteria following the Biden news was appropriate, then the attention paid to Trump’s repeated gaffes, memory lapses, anti-democratic posturing and description of all who disagree with him as ‘tyrants and villains’ should sure as hell be equivalent.”

“No news organization would be biased to treat the cruel or racist or dishonest or gibberish-y things Trump says each day as newsworthy. Trump could absolutely become president again, and anything that downplays his true nature while zooming in tighter on Biden's issues is irresponsible and not proper news judgement,” Huppke said. “One is a normal candidate with ample flaws and policies some will dislike. The other is a criminal defendant who constantly shows he’s a raging narcissist and a profound threat to this country and the world.”

My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, don't unsubscribe. Write in by replying to this email, or leave a comment.

  • I think a lot of people are grossly exaggerating the significance of Trump's comments.
  • In fact, Trump is right to put pressure on NATO allies, and he had a strong track record of getting them to invest more in defense.
  • What is true is that Trump has spoken dangerously about pulling the U.S. out of NATO, which would be a huge mistake.

When people talk about unfair and hysterical coverage of Trump, I think this is a good example.

Trump did not give "an invitation to Putin to invade some of our NATO allies," as Biden claimed and many in the media parroted. He is not "telling us he's an enemy of the American people," as David Rothkopf said in The Daily Beast. And his off-the-cuff comments at a rally in South Carolina are not going to have "catastrophic real world consequences," as CNN's Nick Paton Walsh said.

It's worth stepping back and explaining how this works. NATO allies are not delinquent on their bills to NATO, as Trump often claims. But Trump isn’t posturing as a gangster offering “protection,” either. NATO countries contribute to the alliance with military readiness that we can all depend on throughout the regions NATO countries cover. As part of that readiness, NATO defense ministers agree to commit 2% of their GDP to their own defense spending. This ensures, for instance, that a country like Latvia is going to have something to offer militarily to the alliance if the time ever calls for it.

Trump's rhetoric about “bills” being paid and "NATO fees" is misleading, because he makes it sound like everyone is supposed to be putting their money in a big shared pot and some countries aren’t. That isn’t what is happening (there is a pool for direct operational funding, but countries like Germany pay just as much as we do, and all that money pales in comparison to defense spending by individual nations). The point Trump is making is that NATO allies who don't meet their obligations on their own defense spending should not expect the United States to unconditionally defend them for all of time. 

Is that such a radical idea?

The United States plays principal of the world and spends an inordinate amount of money — more than the next ten countries combined — on our military defenses, which we mostly employ to protect allies and fund proxies overseas. In many ways I'm okay with this. I'd rather it be us and NATO allies doing this, because I trust the values of American and European leaders more than I trust the values of the leaders in Russia or China or Iran. Maybe that makes me another brainwashed Westerner who has fallen victim to decades of propaganda. Maybe I’m just selfish, because I prefer it to be us — American voters — who have an outsized say in guiding how the world operates. But even if you lament that order, it’s still there; and it's an extremely privileged position that many Americans seem to take for granted, or outright loathe (for reasons I don't quite get).

Let me be crystal clear: NATO is imperative, as is our membership in it and our long-term commitment to it. NATO is, without question, one of the most successful peace deals in global history. If you think what is happening in Ukraine and Gaza feels destabilizing right now, just imagine if every country in Europe and the Middle East were acting entirely on their own interests, trying to pick who to tie their fate to and firing in all directions. NATO is a key reason why dozens of conflicts in the last 75 years have not turned into World War III.

And yes, Trump has had very, very bad policy postures toward NATO (like sending signals he'd leave), which if followed through with would be awful for global peace, terrible for the United States, and destabilizing to the current world order. But pressuring allies to pay more? To meet their stated goals? Saying that, actually, we're not just going to accept that they don't follow through on pulling their weight and we’ll defend their territory anyway?

That position should be perfectly acceptable. In fact, 49% of Americans supported exactly that in 2018 (and another 18% were unsure). It's the kind of anti-status-quo rock-the-boat Trumpian position that makes him so popular, and that could actually be very beneficial in our calcified foreign policy. And guess what? It works! Look at how much more non-U.S. members contributed when Trump was president than they did before or after he left office:

Image from a 2022 NATO report showing non-U.S. members contributed more in the four years when Trump was in office than the five years before or the two years after.

That’s from NATO’s own report. And before you try to explain to me reasons why this had nothing to do with Trump, you should know that NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg thanked him for pushing countries in the alliance to commit more.

Even if we were to take Trump's words completely literally (which I would not), Biden and the White House can respond in a number of ways without making ridiculous claims like ‘Trump is inviting Putin to invade the rest of Europe.’

They could, for instance, point out that in 2022 only 7 countries were over the 2% threshold, but Stoltenberg said more than half will be there before 2024 ends. Even though Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is probably the reason for that, Biden could still take some credit for working with our allies. The White House could note that European countries are actually digging way deeper into their pockets to defend Ukraine, as the U.S. isn't even in the top 10 when aid is measured as a percentage of GDP. Furthermore, the eastern bloc of NATO that is most threatened by Russia have already been meeting their commitments. Biden could argue that while some Western European countries aren’t meeting their commitments right now, he plans to ensure they do so in the near future. All of these would be perfectly reasonable ways to respond to Trump’s comments.

Instead, they go back to Trump-Russia hysteria.

In the end, this is mostly a ginned-up controversy that does not represent some global threat to world peace. It would be a global threat to world peace if Trump were to actually abandon this alliance during a second term, which he very well might. That wasn’t part of his comments this time, but it wouldn’t be out of the question for Trump, and calculating the risk of that is important. So far, though, his track record with NATO is getting other countries to contribute more, and making them all less reliant on us. Nothing about that, or his pressure on those countries to continue to contribute more, deserves criticism. 

Disagree? That's okay. My opinion is just one of many. Write in and let us know why, and we'll consider publishing your feedback.

Your questions, answered. 

Q: Trump and Biden are going to be the nominees, and one of them is going to be President in 2025 unless... they die. What would happen exactly if Biden wins the election (with Kamala Harris as VP) and dies before being inaugurated? Kamala Harris becomes acting President and speaker Mike Johnson would become acting VP. Does the president elect pass down to Harris? Does she have to keep Johnson as VP? Would the 3 month term prevent her from running in 2028? 

— Bryan from New Mexico

Tangle: This is a little bit morbid, but I understand a lot of people are thinking about it so I'll try to answer honestly.

There are two timing scenarios here. In the event Biden wins the election in November and then dies or becomes incapacitated after the meetings of the electoral college in December (where electors cast their ballots for who won their state’s elections), it wouldn’t be very complicated. Kamala Harris would become president. She wouldn’t serve a three-month term; she would only be president-elect until inauguration day, then she would begin her first four-year term. Then — yes — she could run again in 2028.

There is actually a constitutional clause for this: “If, at the time fixed for the beginning of the term of the President, the President elect shall have died, the Vice President elect shall become President.”

In the event Biden gets elected in November and then dies or becomes incapacitated before the meeting of the electoral college, things could get a bit more complicated. There have been "faithless electors" before and some state actors could go rogue, casting ballots for people other than Biden and Harris. This could set off a constitutional crisis, but it is pretty unlikely. Most states have laws binding the electors to vote for who won, and those that don't would probably meet to quickly implement them if we were facing this scenario.

As for Speaker Mike Johnson, his role would be non-existent. I have seen some misleading viral posts about presidential succession over the years that have suggested otherwise, but those are misinterpretations of the fact that the House Speaker is second in line to assume the presidency, doing so if both the president and vice president are incapacitated. In reality, Harris (or any VP) would become president and then pick the next vice president the same way a president would. The new vice president would then need a simple majority vote of approval in the House and Senate, which could get interesting, but there is no world in which the House Speaker automatically becomes the vice president.

Want to have a question answered in the newsletter? You can reply to this email (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.

Under the radar.

The Centers for Disease Control is considering a major loosening of its Covid-19 recommendations, including no longer advising that Americans isolate for five days before returning to work or school if they test positive. Instead, the CDC would recommend an infected person go back to their normal routines if they have been fever-free for 24 hours without medication, similar to the standard recommended for the flu and other respiratory viruses. That guidance would put the CDC in line with policies that are already in place in Oregon and California, and it would be the first change to the CDC’s isolation policies since late 2021, when their recommendation decreased from 10 days of isolation to five. The New York Times has the story. (Paywall)


  • 12. The number of countries that initially comprised NATO when it was founded in 1949.  
  • 31. The number of countries in NATO today. 
  • 11. Of the 31 countries in NATO, the number that were projected to meet the 2% GDP expenditure requirement in 2023. 
  • 455, 158, 86, and 54. The number of soldiers lost by the UK, Canada, France, and Germany, respectively, fighting in Afghanistan on behalf of the U.S. after 9/11. 

Some numbers, visualized: Tangle is partnering with Tako to provide data visualizations on our featured story of the day. The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, so we're keeping it going today.

The extras.

  • One year ago today we wrote about the Twitter hearings.
  • The most clicked link in yesterday’s newsletter was yet again the list of the top 10 Super Bowl commercials.
  • Mixed bag: 647 readers responded to our survey asking their opinion on the Tucker Carlson-Vladimir Putin interview with 35% saying Carlson did a mostly poor job but that hearing Putin’s responses was valuable. 26% said Carlson did a good job and Putin’s responses were valuable, 7% said Carlson did a mostly good job but Putin’s responses were not valuable, and 20% said Carlson did a mostly poor job and Putin’s responses were not valuable. 11% were unsure or had no opinion.
  • Nothing to do with politics: How Valentine’s Day started as a celebration of the decapitation of a third century martyr.
  • Take the poll. What do you think of Donald Trump’s recent comments? Let us know!

Have a nice day.

Sergeant Bernard Morgan dressed in the same uniform he wore 80 years ago, when he was the youngest sergeant in the Royal Air Force to take the beach in Normandy in 1944, and prepared for a special occasion. For his 100th birthday, Sergeant Morgan gathered with his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, and read them a note he’s kept with him since two days before World War II ended. As a codebreaker in the Royal Air Force, Sergeant Bernard deciphered the message of Germany’s surrender, and has kept it with him for 79 years. “The Imperial War Museum in London and in Manchester both wanted the original copy — they weren’t interested in a photocopy — but I’m keeping it for my family,” he said. Good News Network has the story.

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.