Sep 19, 2019

What did Trump privately say to foreign leaders?

What did Trump privately say to foreign leaders?

We examine the whistleblower claims. Plus, a question about California's climate rules.

Today’s read: 8 minutes.

A wild whistleblower story, new rules on tailpipe pollution, and Elizabeth Warren getting challenged by Stephen Colbert.

Photo Credit: Ruben de Rijcke

A quick note.

Earlier this week, a reader wrote in from Wisconsin and asked why I so frequently share tweets in Tangle when a good portion of the country isn’t on Twitter. I plan to take a dive into this (and another question they sent) soon, but wanted to share a couple thoughts about Twitter:

  • While Twitter is perceived as a “bubble” or left-leaning, I actually find that it’s a great platform for elevating niche voices. It’s also easy to find experts and people across the political spectrum.
  • Tweets are really easy to embed in my newsletter, which makes them a nice visual element to add video or photos.
  • I try to find stories from all over: personal sources, major news stories, tips readers send in, articles I read from smaller news outlets, rumors I hear in the street, and of course things people post on social media.
  • In my mind, I think of Tangle as delivering 3 things: “what D.C. is talking about,” what you the reader cares about (your questions), and stories that fall under the radar but are important. All in an entertaining, concise way. Tangle is meant to be a balance or counter to platforms like Twitter or television news that are often dominated by already-popular voices where the majority of users are talking about the same one or two stories. And, of course, Tangle’s primary goal is to offer a full spectrum of viewpoints.

Speaking of Twitter.

Yesterday, the “comedian and actor” Terrence K. Williams shared a video of Rep. Ilhan Omar on Twitter “partying” and dancing on the anniversary of 9/11. After sharing the video, the President of the United States retweeted Williams claiming Omar “will win us the Great State of Minnesota.” Well, as it turns out, Williams’ tweet was total B.S. —the video he shared was actually a video from Sept. 13th, of Omar dancing at a Congressional Black Caucus event. Williams later deleted the tweet, an obvious piece of propaganda to smear Omar, but the president had already shared it and is yet to remove his tweet. Inexplicably, when contacted by the conservative Washington Examiner, Williams, who is African-American, demanded that Omar apologize to him with the statement below. It was an ugly episode of misinformation, lies and smears that is becoming all too common on the internet.

What D.C. is talking about.

A mysterious whistleblower. On August 12, an official inside the U.S. intelligence community “filed a formal whistleblower complaint with the inspector general for the intelligence community,” The Washington Post scooped. Now, members of Congress are demanding details of the whistleblower complaint be disclosed and the intel community is resisting, setting off a high-stakes legal battle. Yesterday The Washington Post reported that the complaint involved President Trump’s communication with a foreign leader and included a “promise” that was so troubling it “prompted” the official to file a whistleblower complaint. In the weeks leading up the complaint, Trump spoke with dozens of foreign leaders, including Vladimir Putin (Russia), Kim Jong Un (North Korea) and Mohammad Bin Salman (Saudi Arabia). But details of the complaint are still unknown, and it’s prompting a lot of speculation and more concern about how the president handles classified information.

What Democrats are saying.

Hand it over. The Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson framed the complaint as a matter of “urgent concern,” language usually reserved for credible complaints that require notifying congressional oversight committees. But Joseph Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence, is refusing to hand anything over to Congress in the way of details. Maguire is saying the subject of the complaint is beyond his jurisdiction, which has a lot of Democrats pointing at POTUS. All this lines up with what Democrats have said since the 2016 election: we can’t trust Trump with classified intel. You might remember in 2017 when Trump disclosed classified information about operations in Syria to senior Russian officials while in the Oval Office, an interaction that sent the intel community scrambling to protect its sources and methods. This latest piece of news, though vague, has Democrats once again saying the president is so unhinged he is rattling the intelligence community and leaving members with no choice but to act as whistleblowers to report his behavior. Also, this scoop comes on the same day that Trump, while visiting the border, asked the general of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to share with the press details of the technology being used on the border. The general had to awkwardly respond, “sir, there could be some merit in not discussing that.”

What Republicans are saying.

This dance again? Anonymous sources, vague details, lots of speculation and little hard evidence. Chuck Ross, a reporter at the Tucker Carlson-owned Daily Caller, noted that NBC confirmed the report with a “former intelligence official.” Other conservatives are noting that Chuck Schumer and the Democrats warned Trump in 2017 the intelligence community would “get back at him” for the fights he was picking and the leaks he may have been a part of. Now, those conservatives are re-upping the threats and warning everyone to keep it cool until we know what’s going on. The thought process here is that the leaks are meant to damage Trump politically, but may just be a lot of smoke and no fire. CNN analyst Phil Mudd, a former FBI and CIA official, blasted the unidentified official as a “snitch” on national television. “The president can say what he wants to Putin,” Mudd insisted. “He can say what he wants to Kim Jong Un.” Some Trump loyalists are also noting that the complaint was filed during a very unsettling time at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Dan Coats, the head of the office, left just three days after the whistleblower account was filed. Sue Gordon, who was next in line to replace Coats, resigned shortly after when she found out she wasn’t being called up. Any number of people could have been disgruntled with POTUS and motivated to damage him.

My take.

It’s pretty rare I get to use the “big if true” cliche in a serious tone, but this would certainly qualify. It’s big if true. Perhaps most important about this whistleblower filing is that whoever did this has effectively ended their career in the intelligence world. You only get to blow the whistle once, and you risk serious damage to yourself and your credibility if the person you’re blowing the whistle on is the president. As for the nature of these allegations, it’s complicated. On one hand, the president has a long leash on foreign affairs. If he wants to negotiate, make offers, arrange a quid pro quo, he’s basically allowed to do so at his whim (assuming he’s not breaking any laws or trying to benefit himself personally). The president should be able to talk to foreign leaders and not fear that his conversations will be leaked or shared with Congress, mostly because other world leaders shouldn’t have to worry their conversations will be made public. Considering all that, though, the other side of this is pretty unsettling. The inspector general is a Trump appointee, so this isn’t some partisan hackery. He classified the complaint as “urgent,” which in legal terms means it meets the following threshold: “[a] serious or flagrant problem, abuse, violation of law or Executive order, or deficiency relating to... an intelligence activity involving classified information." That’s a pretty high bar, and means the Trump-appointed IG thinks something illegal or so flagrant happened that Congress must examine it. One thing is for sure: this story isn’t going away until more details come out. The IG just finished testifying during a classified briefing to Congress (no leaks have come out yet) and Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence, agreed to testify behind closed doors next week.

Trouble with Trudeau.

Canada’s beloved Prime Minister is wrapped up in a “brownface scandal.” Yes, that’s right: everyone’s favorite lefty painted his face and wore a turban for an “Arabian Nights” themed party at the private school where he taught. I can hear you sighing from here. Similar photos have embroiled U.S. politicians in scandal, and now everyone’s asking why the left isn’t condemning Trudeau. TIME has the exclusive here.

Your questions, answered.

Reminder: Tangle is about streamlining the information news consumers want to know. My job is to simplify and condense the news so you can stay informed without having to wade through story after story. If you have a question you want answered, you can simply reply to this email.

Q: Can you talk about if there is any positive outcome from Trump repealing the California emissions standards? I really see absolutely no logic behind it besides Trump’s desire to undo everything Obama has done.

- Dan, York, PA

Tangle: Hey Dan — thanks for writing in! I almost made this story the feature in Tangle yesterday, and by the time I was done writing the newsletter it wasn’t even included. I’m glad to get to tackle it through a question.

For those of you who missed it, on Thursday, President Trump formally revoked California’s authority to set its own emission rules that are currently stricter than federal guidelines. This was widely viewed as another attack on the state government’s efforts to combat climate change. In this case, they went after the largest source of greenhouse pollution in America: tailpipe pollution. The new rule would force California into living by the federal regulations, which have been made less stringent than California’s. Still, 13 states and D.C. follow California’s lead on regulating tailpipe pollution, and if this rule were to be slashed it’s unclear what those states would do.

I looked up and down for a positive around this announcement and, to be perfectly honest, I’m struggling to find one. The Wall Street Journal editorial board did make an important argument about the history of these regulations, which provides context some media outlets aren’t. It’s important to remember these emission standards were borne out of the 1970 Clean Air Act, which prohibited states from regulating tailpipe emissions but also allowed “California to request a waiver to ‘meet compelling and extraordinary conditions.’” California used that waiver to reduce tailpipe emissions that caused smog, which was a huge issue back then. When 2009 rolled around, and the waivers still existed, Obama issued a similar waiver to let them regulate greenhouse gasses and set fuel emission standards that were different than what he could pass at the federal level. At that time, the waivers were part of a broader deal to help the automaker industry after the 2008 financial crisis. That was a BFD because more people buy cars in California than anywhere else, which makes it a leader on issues like this. Essentially, California became the de facto emissions standard torch bearer without Congressional approval, because manufacturers need to make cars that can be sold and driven in the state.

Because California has used this waiver to impose electric car quotas and increase the miles per gallon cars run on, The WSJ editorial board makes the case these regulations are hurting auto-manufacturers’ bottom line. They might be right. They’re also right that the regulations haven’t been perfect, i.e. the waivers essentially incentivize manufacturing cars like the Tesla Model S instead of the Nissan Leaf, even though the former uses a lot more fossil fuels and energy to manufacturer than the latter. Common sense would tell you that repealing this regulation is something the automakers want, otherwise why would Trump be doing it? But the WSJ editorial board makes no mention of the deal automakers and California struck in July. Four of the biggest automakers signed a deal with California rejecting Trump’s regulatory rollbacks on emission standards. In the deal, the automakers slightly reduced the standards Obama set — cars would need to average 51 miles per gallon by 2026 instead of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025 — all in an effort to create regulatory certainty across the market.

Because 13 states and D.C. already follow California’s lead, the outcome of what happens here will make things really complicated. If this goes to the Supreme Court, and legal experts think it might, then the court could rule that states can’t regulate their own vehicle emissions. That might simplify things, but it complicates a lot of conservatives’ arguments about the importance of states rights when it comes to issues like abortion or gun control. If the court rejects the case, it could mean that California has the legal authority to set separate standards than the federal laws. As The New York Times put it, this option “could split the United States auto market, with some states adhering to stricter pollution standards than others. For automakers, that would be a nightmare.” What the automakers really want is for California and Trump to compromise, but as the WSJ noted, the president insisted on “trolling” Californians by announcing the revocation of these rules as he tours the state for campaign fundraisers. He doesn’t appear to be looking for compromise, and nor do California’s leaders.

If you’re reaching for a positive outlook, one could note that these kinds of regulations usually work best when the private sector incentivizes itself, so to speak. For instance, if consumers showed that they were hellbent on buying cars that had high miles per gallon or were electric, the manufacturers would start producing them on their own anyway. There’s also existing incentive for automakers to increase investment in electric cars without these standards, since they need to comply with new regulations in China and Europe. The conservative argument here is that the Trump administration actually isn’t prohibiting automakers from making more fuel-efficient cars, it’s just not forcing them into it. Perhaps this story gets enough coverage that it’s a wakeup call or educational for consumers who want to do something about climate change? I’m not sure that’ll happen, but you can dream!

All told, the story is a political and legal mess. Trump isn’t the totalitarian many news outlets are making him sound like (on this issue), and I actually think most Republican presidents would have considered this move given what Obama did in 2009. That being said, if you’re worried about climate change and greenhouse gas emissions, you’re going to have a hard time finding any positive upside here. If you’re optimistic, you could hang on to the news of California’s deal with the automakers and hope that agreement stays in place even as this court battle rages on.

Warren gets grilled.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren took on some unexpected friendly-fire, getting grilled by Stephen Colbert during an appearance on Late Night. Colbert pressed Warren about whether she would need to raise taxes on the middle class for Medicare-for-All, and Warren repeatedly dodged the question — even when Colbert offered a defense for potentially raising taxes. You can see the interaction in the beginning of this video:

A story that matters.

An American airlines mechanic who was accused of plane sabotage may have ties to ISIS, U.S. officials say. Abdul-Majeed Marouf Ahmed Alani admitted to federal agents that he tampered with a Boeing 737 this summer, but claimed he was upset about the terms of his work contract and wanted to delay the flight to get overtime pay. When officials seized his phone, they found videos of mass murders committed by ISIS. Prosecutors also claimed that Alani “had said that he wished that Allah would harm non-Muslims and that he has a brother who lives in Iraq who may be involved with ISIS,” according to The New York Times. The story has mostly slipped under the radar, but as it gets more attention it is igniting a debate about the profiling of Muslims and whether airline employees should be more strictly screened. You can read more here.

Have a nice day.

A medical debt company is helping churches and other organizations pay off people’s medical bills for cheap. The churches work with RIP Medical Debt, a non-profit that purchases debt portfolios on a secondary market for “pennies on the dollar.” That allows smaller amounts of money — like $20,000 — to pay off upwards of two million dollars of medical debts. It works because debt collectors will often bundle the debts of people they don’t expect to pay up and re-sell the bundles to different debt collectors for cheap. Now, church groups are stepping up to buy those bundles and wipe off the debt altogether. One North Texas church paid off $2.7 million in medical debt, which cleared nearly 2,400 families in the Dallas area of debt. Click.

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