Nov 17, 2020

Withdrawing troops from Afghanistan.

Withdrawing troops from Afghanistan.

Plus, could Trump electors hand him the presidency?

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: 14 minutes.

Trump’s push to bring troops home from Afghanistan. Also, a question about whether Trump could insert his own electors to win the Electoral College.

President Donald J. Trump and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison review troops during the State Visit Friday, Sept. 20, 2019, on the South Lawn of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Keegan Barber)

Correcting corrections.

Yesterday, in my correction, I wrote about the “experimental drug Eli Lilly.” That sentence should have read the “experimental Eli Lilly drug.” Eli Lilly is a drug company, which is evident to anyone who has been following COVID-19 news for a long time, and the technical name of their drug is “bamlanivimab.” I really don’t want to count this one, but my conscience prevails. This is, without question, the single most annoying correction in Tangle history.

This is the 20th Tangle correction in its 64-week existence and the first correction since… yesterday. I track corrections in an effort to be transparent and plan to stop counting when the number becomes embarrassing.

Quick hits.

  1. Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said Monday that fellow Republicans, including Sen. Lindsey Graham, have tried to pressure him to throw out legally cast ballots in the state. Raffensperger told The Washington Post that he is receiving death threats over baseless allegations of election fraud.
  2. During the Georgia audit, an election official in Trump-friendly Floyd County found a memory stick that had not been uploaded which contained 2,600 early votes. The new votes netted President Trump an 800-vote swing, a remarkable change to the tally caused by a previously unknown human error. Trump still trails by nearly 14,000 votes in the state.
  3. A race to become the pro-Trump media outlet of the future is underway as viewers are fleeing Fox News for stations like Newsmax, disgruntled over Fox calling Arizona for Joe Biden on election night. Newsmax’s premier host Greg Kelly has drawn as many as 1 million viewers a night.
  4. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, who months ago dismissed mask mandates as “feel-good” measures with little impact, announced a statewide mask mandate yesterday after coronavirus infections in Iowa doubled in a week. Stricter public health restrictions are being imposed in New Jersey, Philadelphia, Oklahoma and California.
  5. U.S. retail sales climbed for the sixth month in a row in October, though they grew at a slower rate. Sales grew a seasonally adjusted 0.3%, below the 0.5% expectation and well short of the 1.6% gain in September.

Philly poll worker.

A Tangle reader who worked the polls in Philadelphia wrote in about their experience — the memorable week, if they saw anything nefarious, and what it was like being on the inside. I’ve put their email into a Google document that you can read by clicking here.

What D.C. is talking about.

Troop withdrawal. President Donald Trump is planning to pull a significant number of troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan in his final days in office. While the plan would fall short of Trump’s long-stated goal to end our wars overseas, it’s a significant enough change that word of the plans immediately drew rebukes from Senate Democrats and Republicans, who worry that a precipitous withdrawal could be disastrous for the region.

There are between 4,500 and 5,000 U.S. troops stationed in Afghanistan, where we have been at war since 2001, making it our nation’s longest war. There are a little more than 3,000 troops in Iraq. A draft of the plan would lower the overall number to 2,500 troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan, according to The Associated Press. Speculation about Trump’s plan to withdraw troops came soon after he fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper and inserted loyalists into top positions at the Pentagon. U.S. military leaders were informed of the withdrawal and that an executive order was imminent over the weekend.

In the planned order, the troop drawdown would happen on January 15th, just five days before Biden takes office. Military officials and members of Congress have expressed more concern over a potential drawdown in Afghanistan than in Iraq, where they believe Iraqi forces will be better able to maintain their own security.

In February, the U.S. and Taliban negotiators came to a peace agreement that required the Taliban to sever its ties with extremist groups like al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, reduce its violence in the region and stop attacks on Afghan forces. In return, the U.S. promised to withdraw all troops by May of 2021. Oddly, the Afghan government was not a direct party to the agreement.

And the deal has not been working. Violence in the region has surged recently, thousands of civilians have been driven from their homes, and the U.S. has responded with airstrikes across the country that have killed an estimated 80 Taliban militants in October. Negotiations are now paused, and the plans for a troop drawdown have left serious doubt about the future of Afghanistan.

Christopher Miller, the new Pentagon chief installed by Trump, wrote in a letter to U.S. forces that “We remain committed to finishing the war that al-Qaida brought to our shores in 2001… This fight has been long, our sacrifices have been enormous, and many are weary of war — I’m one of them… Ending wars requires compromise and partnership. We met the challenge; we gave it our all. Now, it’s time to come home.”

What the left is saying.

The left is critical of Trump’s foreign policy, opposing what they say is a reckless troop removal and arguing that his foreign policy leadership has been a failure. Many on the left are interested in reducing the United States’ military interventions overseas, but remain critical of Trump’s approach and his lack of a clear plan.

In CNN, David A. Andelman wrote that if Trump follows through on this move, “some 2,500 troops would still be left in each theater -- though Trump's goal had been zero troops by the time he left office. It was unclear whether leaving such a small number of American troops in bitterly contested areas could endanger the safety of those still deployed.”

“Even before the latest Pentagon reshuffle, the US timeline to withdraw troops from Afghanistan was wildly inconsistent,” Andelman added. “US military leaders have stressed that a withdrawal there would be contingent on certain conditions, including the Taliban breaking ties with al Qaeda and making progress in peace talks with the Afghan government. Both of these conditions have not yet been met, and prematurely withdrawing US troops would not only destroy the credibility of our country, but also remove any incentive to achieve these goals… The costs of pulling US troops out of volatile regions prematurely could drag the US back into war all over again. This would be a horrific burden on the Biden administration, especially given the coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout.”

In NBC News, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said if “there's a point of agreement between President Donald Trump and those on the left who favor a reduced U.S. military presence in the world, it's that the war in Afghanistan should have ended long ago.” Now, though, she says that “bipartisan agreement might spell disaster for the best allies the U.S. has had” in Afghanistan: Afghan women.

“No one has wanted peace more, sacrificed more or risked more to bring security to Afghanistan than Afghan women since the end of Taliban rule in 2001,” Lemmon wrote. “They have risked their own safety to fight for human rights, to work in local charities teaching agriculture and entrepreneurship and to serve in their government. They have broken norms, battled extremism in their own homes, fought for schools, served as journalists and dared to challenge traditions. All the while they have been peaceful and have argued for an end to the war between Taliban and Afghan forces. Yet this most important voice is the one most often left out of the discussion as a peace deal is mapped out.”

In The Nation, Jeet Heer wrote that the “coup” that has actually worked is the national security establishment ignoring and overriding Trump’s wishes. One such example was in 2018, when Trump ordered removal of troops from Syria but “behind the scenes, military leaders and their allies in the government were able to make sure Trump’s orders weren’t carried out. ‘What Syria withdrawal? There was never a Syria withdrawal,’ Syria envoy Jim Jeffrey told Defense One. ‘When the situation in northeast Syria had been fairly stable after we defeated ISIS, [Trump] was inclined to pull out. In each case, we then decided to come up with five better arguments for why we needed to stay. And we succeeded both times. That’s the story…’

“But this policy achievement was built on lies,” Heer said. “Trump was led to believe the United States had only 200 troops in Syria. In reality, more than 900 military personnel continue to be part of the mission. ‘We were always playing shell games to not make clear to our leadership how many troops we had there,’ Jeffrey confessed. The real number was always ‘a lot more than’ Trump thought… Trump, to be sure, bears much of the blame for this travesty. All presidents have to fight a recalcitrant bureaucracy, but Trump, because of his limited understanding of how policy is made and his unrivaled laziness, didn’t even bother to put up a fight.”

What the right is saying.

The right seems split on the news. Some support Trump’s decision, noting that his promises to “bring the troops home” were key to his campaigns in 2016 and this year. Others are critical of the decision because it bucks the advice of top military officials.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board wrote critically of the move, saying it wished “there was some justification other than the looming end of his Presidency.”

“There’s certainly no military rationale for reducing U.S. forces to 2,500… The 2,500 looks like a number pulled out of a Pentagon helmet as an arbitrary alternative to the disastrous total pullout Mr. Trump was contemplating last week,” the board wrote. “Mr. Trump says it’s time to go because we’ve been there 19 years, and that’s enough,” the board said. “But that’s a political notion put into his head by the loyalists he has placed in charge of the Pentagon in the last few days. The rushed reduction in forces will reinforce the Taliban’s view that they needn’t compromise in negotiations with the Afghan government because the Americans are desperate to depart.”

In The Federalist, Sumantra Maitra took the opposing view, saying “This has the potential to conclude America’s longest and perhaps most pointless of military engagements. While the idea was to decimate al-Qaeda and punish the Taliban, that was over by 2005. By the time of the surge in 2007, the overall war had morphed into a nation-building process with a sunk cost fallacy.”

“Not just Republicans, but also a majority of Democrats desire a U.S. troop pullout from Afghanistan,” he said. “Taking U.S. troops out of the Middle East should have been done a while back, but is a politically prudent thing to do now anyway. That’s because, one, Trumpism is the future of conservatism. Whatever happens, the biggest long-term legacy of Trump is pushing neoconservatives to their former parent party, the Democrats. The future conservative party will be a party of realism and restraint. Meaningless wars will not be a vote winner.”

Bing West argued that the U.S. could actually keep doing what it’s been doing for the last several years, and framed it as a rather successful plot.

“The Taliban share Islamist roots with terrorists who pursue murder on a global scale,” he said. “A total U.S. withdrawal would lead to a resurgence of terror plots, no longer in danger of disruption. Instead, the U.S. should continue what it is doing: keep military presence low and lethality high, and tolerate a messy government in Kabul. With modest expense and low casualties, the benefits of withdrawal can’t justify the costs.”

My take.

Most days that I have the pleasure of writing this newsletter, I can put myself into an open-minded headspace — one where I genuinely feel welcome to the arguments I’m about to explore and believe sincerely that I’m prepared to examine the evidence in front of me and make a fair assessment of what I’m reading. Everyone has biases, including me, but I feel as though I’ve worked this muscle so many times now that I know exactly how to clear the board and start with a clean slate.

This week, for this newsletter, the effort felt hopeless.

We’ve been at war in Afghanistan for 19 years, the longest conflict in American history. We’ve spent $975 billion dollars — nearly $1.5 million a day, on average. A U.S. watchdog that conducts oversight of Afghanistan reconstruction efforts said as much as $15.5 billion had been lost on “waste, fraud and abuse” between 2006 and 2017 alone. That’s your money. That’s my money. That’s our tax dollars “at work.”

More than 2,300 U.S. soldiers have died, nearly the same number of Americans killed (2,996) in the September 11th attacks that started this war. Over 20,000 soldiers have been injured in action, and those numbers are a fraction of the pain and suffering our Afghan partners have endured. More than 45,000 members of the Afghan security forces have been killed since 2014. More than 100,000 Afghan civilians have been killed or injured since the U.N. began systematically tracking the numbers in 2009 — already eight years into the war.

The very premise for the invasion of Afghanistan was a reprisal for September 11th, an American tragedy unlike any other. It’s not hard to understand our nation’s rage and pain in the wake of those attacks, but it is often hard for me to understand our response. We toppled the Taliban, who at the time were the ultraconservative party ruling Afghanistan, in two months. We spent another six years “rebuilding” Afghanistan, though less than one-fifth of the money we’ve spent there has actually been on reconstruction efforts, according to some estimates.

Between 2002 and 2008, there was an extremist resurgence in Afghanistan, and it’s not hard to see why. U.S. and NATO bombings were regularly killing civilians — the innocents we were supposed to be protecting. Afghan government corruption was running wild. Anti-Western sentiment grew. The “reconstruction” happened slowly. Prisoners of war were being tortured. Every single time a U.S. bomb dropped in Afghanistan, more American-hating extremists were born. The same trend is happening across the globe right now.

In my attempt at open-mindedness while reading the arguments today, I did feel pangs of doubt. Gayle Tzemach Lemmon’s description of what Afghan women were facing before U.S. soldiers arrived, contrasted with the life they have made that they are trying to preserve, is something every American should read. It’s perhaps the brightest spot in this dark story, and she makes a compelling case for keeping troops there.

When outgoing envoy to Syria Jim Jeffrey admitted that national security officials regularly lied to President Trump to avoid completing his orders — mostly to preserve troop strength in the Middle East — liberals laughed and celebrated the news. I don’t find anything about it funny or epic or amazing. It’s an embarrassment, one that speaks to the internal disloyalty Trump sometimes faced in his poorly planned efforts to bring the Afghanistan war to a close.

Trump’s campaign pledge and now his final hail mary attempt to bring our troops home from a drawn out, wasteful and unsuccessful war are good things. I believe in them and they are, in my mind, one of the most redeeming efforts of his presidency. I wish he had more buy-in for this goal from the national security officials he is supposed to be leading. I wish he hadn’t worsened our drone wars while preaching peace. I wish he had developed an actual plan to match his campaign rhetoric and had executed it in his four years on the job. He has faced a defiant and emboldened group of military officials hellbent on ignoring him, but so did Barack Obama, and so has nearly every other president in modern American history; yet others still managed to get at least some of what they wanted. Trump hasn’t. There’s plenty of blame to go around for this outcome, and the president himself is certainly not absolved.

At this point, a clear-cut solution is not available. We’re in a lose-lose situation, which is both not new, and something we should remember next time we consider starting a new war. Our military experts are clear: the peace negotiations are not where they need to be, and a U.S. drawdown now risks allowing the Taliban to once again overthrow the Afghan government we are trying to protect. But there’s always a reason to stay, isn’t there? There’s been a new reason or the same reason or a misleading reason since 2003. And every year we just keep buying those reasons, and every year we spend another few billion dollars, and every year more people die, and every year we seem to be further from our stated goals. At some point, it’s just hard to buy the reasons anymore — and at some point it feels like it’s time to just follow through.

Your questions, answered.

Q: I keep hearing about the possibility that Trump will replace electors who are loyal to him and basically overthrow the electoral college, getting votes from swing states he needs to win the presidential race after the vote is certified. Is this a real possibility? How could he do this?

— Shannon, Little Rock, Arkansas

Tangle: Of all the questions I’ve gotten in the last week, this is the one that has probably come into my inbox the most.

Frankly, I don’t blame so many of you for asking. The theory has been floating around for weeks on television, radio, and even in the pages of the most respected newspapers in the country. It was out there even before the election, with headlines like, “The Trump campaign is reportedly planning a way to bypass the 2020 election results in key swing states.”

But it’s a fantasy — one I think is so absurd and far-fetched that it’s actually irresponsible of so many news outlets to give it oxygen (my suspicion is these stories are clickbait and drive a lot of traffic, which is tied directly to the broken incentive structure I talk about in media and why I created Tangle).

The nuts and bolts of this is the fact that your vote is not technically the thing that determines who your state is choosing for president. That responsibility belongs to electors: people chosen by state legislatures to represent each presidential candidate. In short, if your state’s popular vote goes to Biden, there are predetermined electors chosen to award those electoral college votes to Biden. But since states decide who those chosen electors are, some Trump allies have theorized — and even openly encouraged, in the case of radio host Mark Levin and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — Republican state legislatures to appoint new pro-Trump electors and ignore the popular vote by awarding the electoral votes to Trump.

Somehow, the idea that this is legally possible has gained traction. Maybe it’s because so-called “constitutional experts” like Levin keep claiming it’s possible, but mostly it’s because people seem to be assuming that any legal challenges to such a move would end up in the now-conservative Supreme Court and go Trump’s way. But the theory has too many holes to count.

For one, Republican leaders in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Arizona and Wisconsin have already said repeatedly that they would never attempt to intervene in the selection of electors, pointing out that even attempting to do so would violate state law on top of violating the will of the people. So in that sense, the theory is dead on arrival. Biden won all those states and even Republican leaders there have indicated their electors will cast their votes accordingly.

That means Trump can’t replace the electors, but would need “faithless electors” — i.e. electors who cast their votes against the person they pledged to support based on the election outcome. But the Supreme Court ruled this year that laws removing or punishing faithless electors are constitutional, meaning faithless electors would be challenged and removed.

Two, the only loophole in federal law to allow state legislatures to choose new electors is if the election “fails” — i.e. if there is no clear winner by mid-December. Even then, if the election had failed or there was no clear winner (which is not remotely close to what we have), a court intervention to stop the choosing of electors — or states intervening to choose their own electors — would be extremely unlikely. It’s far more probable things would just be delayed until audits or recounts were completed (again, that’s only if states were in legal audit and recount territory, which most of these states are not).

But even assuming Trump somehow made the election unclear, then won an unbelievable streak of court cases to force audits and recounts, then managed to totally topple our system for electing a president and actually inserted his own Trump-friendly electors in swing states that he needs to buck the will of the people, then won a Supreme Court case to keep them there  — that actually still wouldn’t be enough!

Congress ultimately is the final arbiter of “disputed” state electors. If Democrats in the House and Republicans in the Senate could not agree on the electors to accept, there’s no vote and no winner. If there’s no vote and no winner, Trump and Pence’s terms expire on January 20th regardless. That means the presidency would be assumed by the next person in the line of succession…

That person is House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat.

In short: it’s not happening, I don’t know why any news outlets are entertaining the idea it could happen, nor do I see any way it ends with Trump back in office even if it were to happen.

Reminder: You can ask a question too, just reply to this email and write in.

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A story that matters.

In 44 days, the giant safety net passed earlier this year for Americans suffering because of coronavirus will expire. Included in that safety net are unemployment benefits for gig workers, extra unemployment insurance for those whose state unemployment has expired, the eviction moratorium, small business debt relief, student loan debt relief, and state and local funding. Yet there are still no talks on Capitol Hill to put together another COVID-19 relief bill — no negotiations, no rumors of new legislation, nothing to vote on.


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  • 40%. The percentage of Republicans who viewed in-person gatherings as risky in late October.
  • 52%. The percentage of Republicans who now view in-person gatherings as risky.
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  • 246,879. The number of Americans who have now died from COVID-19.

Have a nice day.

On Monday night, SpaceX’s crew arrived at the International Space Station, completing a 27-hour journey and the first-ever commercial flight partnership between NASA and a private company to send astronauts to the International Space Station. The event is a major milestone not just for NASA, but for the future of private space flight and Elon Musk’s dream of sending regular Americans into outer space. American astronauts have been grounded since 2011, instead relying on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft to get them to and from the ISS. "This mission was a dream," NASA human spaceflight chief Kathy Lueders said during a news conference early Tuesday morning. "It was a dream of us to be able to one day … have crew transportation services to the International Space Station. And today that dream became a reality."

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