Ukraine’s counteroffensive against Putin

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

Heather Cox Richardson

September 30, 2022

After a two-month stalemate, earlier this month Ukraine launched a game-changing counteroffensive against the Russians occupying their eastern territories of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia. 

Over the summer, Ukrainian forces destroyed Russian arms, command centers, and supplies behind Russian lines with U.S.-supplied long-range High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), then began to talk of a counteroffensive in the south, near Kherson. To guard against such a move, Russia moved many of its soldiers from the northeast to Kherson, leaving its northeastern troops stretched thin. 

On September 6, Ukrainians moved, but not near Kherson in the south. Instead, they struck hard on the weakened northeastern lines, cutting quickly through the stretched and disheartened Russian occupiers and capturing more than 6000 square miles in less than a week. Russian troops abandoned their weapons and fled. 

Russian president Vladimir Putin had launched the war on February 24 with the expectation that a lightning-quick attack would give him control of Ukraine before other nations could react, much as when he had invaded Crimea in 2014, or Georgia in 2008. 

But he did not reckon with the careful rebuilding and training the Ukrainian military had undergone since 2014 as it worked to hold off Russia. He also misjudged the strength and commitment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which former president Trump had worked hard to dismantle. In office only a year at that point, President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken had made reconstructing the world’s democratic alliances a top priority.

Those alliances held against Russia’s invasion of a sovereign nation as they had not before when Putin had bought appeasement with promises: “Don’t believe those who try to use Russia to scare you, who say that, after Crimea, other [Ukrainian] regions will follow,” he said in 2014. “We don’t want to carve up Ukraine. We don’t need this.” In 2022, international sanctions began to bite into and then to bring down the Russian economy, while shipments of weapons and economic support kept the Ukrainians supplied. Rather than a quick, successful strike, Putin found himself in a drawn-out and deeply unpopular conflict. 

The Ukrainian counteroffensive tightened the screws further. Putin responded to it on September 21 by hinting that he might use nuclear weapons and calling for what initially was described as “partial” mobilization, a move he had tried to avoid because of its potential to turn the Russian people against him. Immediately, Russian men headed for the country’s borders, while civilians and draftees, provided with few supplies and no training, began to resist. 

Putin also announced that the four occupied regions would hold referenda on joining Russia and would be part of Russia as soon as those referenda occurred, so any attacks on them would be considered attacks on Russian territory. With this upfront admission that the vote was predetermined, Putin’s move was clearly designed to enable him to keep the Ukrainian territory he seems about to lose. It also violated international law by attacking another nation’s sovereignty, and Biden and other democratic leaders condemned it in advance.

Then, on September 26, the Nord Stream pipelines on the floor of the Baltic Sea that send natural gas from Russia to Europe appear to have been sabotaged with TNT in what appears to have been a warning that Russia could attack the critical infrastructure of NATO countries. In this case, neither of the pipelines was in use, and blowing them up might simply have been a way to get rid of them in such a way to collect insurance on assets that are losing value as Europe turns to alternative energy. 

But the explosions might also have been a warning that the seven major pipelines delivering Norwegian gas to Europe could be next. Former president Trump promptly “truthed”: “Do not make matters worse with the pipeline blowup. Be strategic, be smart (brilliant!), get a negotiated deal done NOW. Both sides need and want it. The entire World is at stake. I will head up group???” 

Today, in a televised ceremony, Putin announced that the sham referenda had taken place and that “there are four new regions of Russia.” The four territories, which Russia does not fully control, cover about 18% of Ukraine. Putin’s speech seemed to indicate a concern that the countries under his sway are sliding away. He focused on the “West,” claiming that Russia itself is under attack from western democracies. “The West is looking for new opportunities to hit us and they always dreamt about breaking our state into smaller states who will be fighting against each other,” he said. “They cannot be happy with this idea that there is this large country with all [these] natural riches and people who will never live under a foreign oppression.”

He offered to negotiate for an end to the war, but said that the “four new regions of Russia aren’t up for negotiation.” 

Journalist Anne Applebaum, who is a specialist on Central and Eastern Europe, identified Putin’s actions as a war not just on Ukraine, but on world order and the rule of law, a system embraced by the democratic world. It is, she writes in The Atlantic, “a statement of contempt for democracy itself.” That world order says that big countries cannot attack smaller countries and that mass slaughter is unacceptable. In contrast, in Putin’s world, she writes, “Only brutality matters.”

Secretary of State Blinken tweeted: “Today, we took swift and severe measures in response to President Putin’s attempt to annex regions of Ukraine—a clear violation of international law. We will continue to impose costs on anyone that provides political or economic support for this sham.”

In turn, Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky announced that Ukraine is applying for “accelerated ascension” into NATO. Ukraine’s membership in the organization would require other NATO countries to send troops to fight Russia. Admission to NATO requires the consent of all 30 members, and that consent is unlikely to materialize in the midst of a war, but Zelenky’s announcement overshadowed Putin’s. 

Zelensky appealed to the ethnic minorities conscripted into Russian armies not to fight, telling them that more than 58,000 Russian soldiers had already died in Ukraine and warning them that they do not have to die for Putin. If they do come, he warned, those who are sent without dog tags should tattoo their names on their bodies so the Ukrainian authorities can inform their relatives when they are killed.  

“The United States condemns Russia’s fraudulent attempt today to annex sovereign Ukrainian territory,” President Biden said. “Russia is violating international law, trampling on the United Nations Charter, and showing its contempt for peaceful nations everywhere. Make no mistake: these actions have no legitimacy.” 

The U.S. announced new sanctions against Russians and Russian entities and will continue to provide aid to the Ukrainians. In what sounded like a reference to the damaged pipelines, Biden told reporters “America’s fully prepared with our NATO allies to defend every single inch of NATO territory, every single inch,” Mr. Biden said, adding: “Mr. Putin, don’t misunderstand what I’m saying.”

Meanwhile, Ukrainian troops have advanced around the city of Lyman and appear to be on the cusp of encircling the Russian troops there. Lyman is a key logistics and transportation hub, and the Institute for the Study of War, a think tank, says its loss “will likely be highly consequential to the Russian grouping.”

Today, a Washington Post op-ed by Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, now serving a nine-year sentence in a maximum-security penal colony on trumped up charges, bore a title unimaginable a year ago: “This is what a post-Putin Russia should look like.”

Florida hit by Hurricane Ian. Can Russia survive Vladimir Putin?

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

Heather Cox Richardson

September 28, 2022

More than 1.5 million Florida residents are without power as Hurricane Ian is pounding the southwestern coast and moving inland. The hurricane was close to a Category 5 storm when it made landfall about 3 this afternoon, with the predicted 12-foot storm surge materializing near Fort Myers. It has been slowing since it hit land, but the damage, including to this year’s orange crop, is already considerable.

This destructive storm highlights the distance between reality and the ideology that calls for getting rid of the federal government.

As a newly elected congress member in 2013, now-governor of Florida Ron DeSantis was one of the 67 House Republicans who voted against a $9.7 billion federal flood insurance assistance package for the victims of Hurricane Sandy in New York and New Jersey. Now, with Florida on the ropes, DeSantis asked President Joe Biden for an emergency declaration to free up federal money and federal help even before the storm hit, and said Tuesday, “We all need to work together, regardless of party lines.”

Since the 1980s, the argument for dismantling the government has been that federal regulations hamper the operation of the free market, thus slowing economic growth, while the taxes required to maintain a bureaucratic system take money away from those who otherwise would invest in businesses. The avowed theory is that a freely operating market will free up money on the “supply side” of the economy. Flush with cash, investors will theoretically pump that money into new enterprises that will hire workers, and everyone will prosper together.

Yesterday the Congressional Budget Office released a study of trends in the distribution of family wealth between 1989—immediately after President Ronald Reagan began the antiregulation and antitax push—and 2019. In those thirty years, total real wealth held by families tripled from $38 trillion to $115 trillion. But the distribution of that growth was not even.

Money moved toward the families in the top 10%, and especially in the top 1%, shifting from families with less income and education toward those with more wealth and education. In the 30 years examined, the share of wealth belonging to families in the top 10% increased from 63% in 1989 to 72% in 2019, from $24.3 trillion to $82.4 trillion (an increase of 240%). The share of total wealth held by families in the top 1% increased from 27% to 34% in the same period. In 2019, families in the bottom half of the economy held only 2% of the national wealth, and those in the bottom quarter owed about $11,000 more than they owned.

The relative invisibility of these statistics after forty years under Republican ideology has enabled today’s Republicans to insist the Democrats are “socialists” who are trying to redistribute wealth downward even as our laws are clearly redistributing it upward.

Last night, California governor Gavin Newsom, who is running for reelection, insisted on MSNBC’sAlex Wagner Tonight that Democrats must push back against the Republican domination of culture wars. Newsom pointed out that 8 of the 10 states with the highest murder rates are Republican states and that the gun death rate in Texas is 67% higher than that in California. Newsom expressed dismay that Democrats aren’t better at advocating their policies.

That omission is likely a result of the fact that after World War II, it never occurred to most Americans that anyone here would need to defend democracy. And yet we are now facing the rise of “illiberal democracy” or “Christian democracy,” which argues that democracy’s protection of equal rights weakens societies by destroying their moral core and by splitting the people internally. Its adherents call for limiting the vote; privileging white, heterosexual Christian citizens; and standing behind an authoritarian leader who will stamp out opposition—that is, a system that is not a democracy at all.

There is a direct correlation between growing economic inequality and the growing popularity of authoritarianism. Scholars of authoritarian systems note that a population that feels economically, religiously, or culturally dispossessed is an easy target for an authoritarian who promises to bring back a mythological world in which its members were powerful.

But, having lifted strongmen into power, they learn that they were only tools to put in place someone whose decisions are absolute and who is no longer bound by the law.

Today the New York Times published a series of telephone calls from Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine. The men were poorly equipped, badly commanded, completely disillusioned, and utterly disgusted with Russian president Vladimir Putin, while their people back home complained that the economy was collapsing and the gains of the past 30 years were being swept away.

Meanwhile, Russia has had to strip its troops away from its borders to replace the soldiers lost in Ukraine, and the situation does not appear to be improving. The calls published in the New York Times were captured before Russia’s current mobilization, which has prompted a mass exodus out of the country. Since last week, 53,000 Russians have fled to Georgia; more than 98,000 have fled to Kazakhstan.

In the U.S. today, Zachary Cohen, Holmes Lybrand, and Jackson Grigsby of CNN reported on footage taken by a Danish film crew that followed Trump loyalist Roger Stone for about three years for a documentary. The House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol has seen the footage and permitted the release of certain clips from around the time of the 2020 election and the January 6 attack.

In July 2020, Stone was already saying that Trump’s team would not accept the results of the election, clearly expecting that Trump would lose. The day before the election, he said: “F*ck the voting, let’s get right to the violence.” Like Steve Bannon, Stone also said that Trump should simply declare victory, saying: “Possession is nine tenths of the law.” The filmmakers later recorded him asking for a pardon for his participation in the insurrection, noting that since Trump had already pardoned him once, after his conviction for lying to lawmakers about his actions and his relationship to Russia in the 2016 campaign, no one would care if Trump pardoned him again.

Yesterday, U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson, who presided over Roger Stone’s trial for lying to lawmakers about his ties to Russia during the 2016 election, called out “high-ranking members of Congress and state officials” for being “so afraid of losing their power” that they won’t contradict Trump when he lies that he won the 2020 election. She warned that the courts must hold the line against the lies and the violence Republican lawmakers are encouraging.

Meanwhile, Trump’s demand for a special master to review the materials FBI agents took from Mar-a-Lago on August 8 has put him on the spot. The demand for the review seemed designed to slow the examination of the documents with classification markings, but those have now been exempted by an appeals court, and special master Judge Raymond Dearie is puncturing Trump’s wild claims that he declassified documents or that the FBI planted them at Mar-a-Lago by asking Trump’s lawyers to put those claims in writing for the court.

Dearie has asked them to identify which of the 200,000 pages of documents not marked classified Trump wants to claim are covered by attorney-client privilege or executive privilege. If he wants to claim executive privilege, he also must explain why the executive branch, currently run by President Biden, has no right to see those documents.

Dearie has also asked them to verify by Friday the inventory written by the FBI agents of what they recovered or to note what items on it were allegedly planted. So, the lawyers must either admit that Trump held classified documents or claim that he declassified them (there is no evidence that he did), assert that the FBI planted those documents, or lie. Instead, they are trying to avoid verifying the inventory.

That review will cost Trump a lot. He has to pay a vendor to digitize the roughly 200,000 pages, then pay $500 an hour for the review, plus the cost of his own lawyers.

While those machinations are taking place, today, for the first time since 1969, the White House held a conference on hunger, nutrition, and health. Biden is bringing together the private sector and government to try to end hunger in America by 2030. The 1969 conference under President Richard Nixon led to a big expansion in food assistance programs. Now, a variety of companies and foundations have pledged $8 billion to address food insecurity, while Democrats in Congress are calling for more free meals in schools and extending school food programs through the summer. Biden has also called for making the expanded child tax credit permanent.

Fallout from DeSantis’ cruel campaign stunt

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

Heather Cox Richardson

September 16, 2022

The big story in the news over the past couple of days is that Florida governor Ron DeSantis chartered two planes to fly about 50 migrants, most of whom were from Venezuela, to Martha’s Vineyard, off the coast of Massachusetts.

The story is still developing. Although DeSantis is the governor of Florida, the migrants appear to have come from Texas, and it currently appears that they were lured onto the planes—paid for with taxpayer money—with the false promise of work and housing in New York City or Boston. In addition, there are allegations from a lawyer working with the migrants that officials from the Department of Homeland Security falsified information about the migrants to set them up for automatic deportation. As I write this, it is not clear what their actual status is: have they applied for asylum and been processed, or are they undocumented immigrants?

As Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo says, none of it adds up.

None of it, that is, except the politics. DeSantis apparently dispatched the migrants with a videographer to take images of them arriving, entirely unexpectedly, on the upscale island, presumably in an attempt to present the image that Democratic areas can’t handle immigrants (in fact, more than 12% of the island’s 17,000 full-time residents were born in foreign countries, and 22% of the residents are non-white). But the residents of the island greeted the migrants; found beds, food, and medical care; and worked with authorities to move them back to the mainland where there are support services and housing. In the meantime, there are questions about the legality of DeSantis chartering planes to move migrants from state to state.

There are two big stories behind DeSantis’s move.

First is that the Republicans are on the ropes over the Supreme Court’s June 2022 Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health decision and the capture of the party by its MAGA wing. That slide into radical extremism means the party is contracting, but it is not clear at all that base voters will show up in the midterms without former president Trump on the ballot.

Rallying voters with threats of “aliens” swamping traditional society is a common tactic of right-wing politicians; it was the central argument that brought Hungary’s Viktor Orbán into his current authoritarian position. Republican governors Greg Abbott of Texas and Doug Ducey of Arizona have been bussing migrants to Washington—about 10,000 of them—saying they would bring the immigrant issue to the doorsteps of Democrats. Now DeSantis is in on the trick.

Immigrants are nothing new to northern cities, of course. The U.S. is in a period of high immigration. Currently, 15% of the inhabitants of Washington, D.C., are foreign born, only slightly less than the 16.8% of the population of Texas that is foreign born. About 29% of the inhabitants of Boston come from outside U.S. borders, as do 36% of the inhabitants of New York City.

In the lead-up to the midterms, Republicans have tried to distract from their unpopular stands on abortion, contraception, marriage equality, and so on, by hammering on the idea that the Democrats have created “open borders”; that criminal immigrants are bringing in huge amounts of drugs, especially fentanyl; and that Biden is secretly flying undocumented immigrants into Republican states in the middle of the night. Beginning in July, they began to insist that the country is being “invaded.”

In fact, the border is not “open.” Fences, surveillance technology, and about 20,000 Border Patrol agents make the border more secure than it has ever been. That means apprehensions of undocumented migrants are up, with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) recording more than 3 million encounters at the border since January 2021. Those high numbers reflect people stopped from coming in and are artificially inflated because many who are stopped try again. CBP estimates that about 27% of those stopped at the border are repeat apprehensions.

Although much fentanyl is being stopped, some is indeed coming in, but through official ports of entry in large trucks or cars, not on individual migrants, who statistically are far less likely than native-born Americans to commit crimes. And the federal government is not secretly flying anyone anywhere (although, ironically, DeSantis is); U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) sometimes moves migrants between detention centers, and CBP transfers unaccompanied children to the Department of Health and Human Services. These flights have been going on for years.

The second story is the history of American immigration, which is far more complicated and interesting than the current news stories suggest.

Mexican immigration is nothing new; our western agribusinesses were built on migrant labor of Mexicans, Japanese, and poor whites, among others, in the late 19th century. From the time the current border was set in 1848 until the 1930s, people moved back and forth across it without restrictions. But in 1965, Congress passed the Hart-Celler Act, putting a cap on Latin American immigration for the first time. The cap was low: just 20,000, although 50,000 workers were coming annually.

After 1965, workers continued to come as they always had, and to be employed, as always. But now their presence was illegal. In 1986, Congress tried to fix the problem by offering amnesty to 2.3 million Mexicans who were living in the U.S. and by cracking down on employers who hired undocumented workers. But rather than ending the problem of undocumented workers, the new law exacerbated it by beginning the process of militarizing the border. Until then, migrants into the United States had been offset by an equal number leaving at the end of the season. Once the border became heavily guarded, Mexican migrants refused to take the chance of leaving.

Then, in the 1990s, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) flooded Mexico with U.S. corn and drove Mexican farmers to find work in the American Southeast. This immigration boom had passed by 2007, when the number of undocumented Mexicans living in the United States began to decline as more Mexicans left the U.S. than came.

In 2013 a large majority of Americans, both Republicans and Democrats, backed a bill to fix the disconnect caused by the 1965 law. In 2013, with a bipartisan vote of 68–32, the Senate passed a bill giving a 13-year pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants, who would have to meet security requirements. It required employers to verify that they were hiring legal workers. It created a visa system for unskilled workers, and it got rid of preference for family migration in favor of skill-based migration. And it strengthened border security. It would have passed the House, but House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) refused to bring it up for a vote, aware that the issue of immigration would rally Republican voters.

But most of the immigrants coming over the southern border now are not Mexican migrants.

Beginning around 2014, people began to flee “warlike levels of violence” in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, coming to the U.S. for asylum. This is legal, although most come illegally, taking their chances with smugglers who collect fees to protect migrants on the Mexican side of the border and to get them into the U.S.

The Obama administration tried to deter migrants by expanding the detention of families, and it made significant investments in Central America in an attempt to stabilize the region by expanding economic development and promoting security. The Trump administration emphasized deterrence. It cut off support to Central American countries, worked with authoritarians to try to stop regional gangs, drastically limited the number of refugees the U.S. would admit, and—infamously—deliberately separated children from their parents to deter would-be asylum seekers.

The number of migrants to the U.S. dropped throughout Trump’s years in office. The Trump administration gutted immigration staff and facilities and then cut off immigration during the pandemic under Title 42, a public health order.

The Biden administration coincided with the easing of the pandemic and catastrophic storms in Central America, leading migration to jump, but the administration continued to turn migrants back under Title 42 and resumed working with Central American countries to stem the violence that is sparking people to flee. (In nine months, the Trump administration expelled more than 400,000 people under Title 42; in Biden’s first 18 months, his administration expelled 1.7 million people.)

The Biden administration sought to end Title 42 last May, but a lawsuit by Republican states led a federal judge in Louisiana to keep the policy in place. People arriving at the U.S. border have the right to apply for asylum even under Title 42.

There are a lot of moving pieces in the immigration debate: migrants need safety, the U.S. needs workers, our immigrant-processing systems are understaffed, and our laws are outdated. They need real solutions, not political stunts.

Letter from Joint Chiefs: “Leaders must be diligent about keeping the military separate from partisan political activity.”

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

HCR
Heather Cox Richardson

September 7, 2022

When President Joe Biden called out “Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans” last Thursday as representative of “an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic,” he drew a clear line between those supporting the former president and those from all parties who support democracy. He quite deliberately drew a line between Trump supporters and “mainstream Republicans” who do not embrace the “extreme ideology” of their former allies.

Immediately, Trump supporters attacked the president and rushed to defend Trump, just as more news broke about his theft of classified documents and other presidential records when he left the White House. This tied the Republican Party to Trump, along with what is a stunning national security story that continues to unfold. 

Just tonight we learned that FBI agents found a document detailing the military defenses of a foreign government, including its nuclear capabilities, during last month’s search of Mar-a-Lago. What is at stake here is not simply information about the U.S., or even information about the way our leaders conceive of what is best for the U.S. What is at stake is the security of the U.S. and our democratic allies. Some of the documents they found were so highly restricted that they required special clearances on a need-to-know basis. Trump kept them in boxes at Mar-a-Lago. 

This situation is extraordinary, but yesterday, Senator Marco Rubio demonstrated his loyalty to Trump when he referred to Trump’s theft and mishandling of the documents as “a fight over storage of documents.” Rubio is the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee. 

Yesterday’s decision by Judge Aileen Cannon further illustrated the strength of the MAGA Republicans and their positions in places of power. 

Cannon was nominated by Trump and confirmed after he lost the 2020 election. Yesterday she granted Trump’s request for a special master to review the government documents the FBI recovered from Mar-a-Lago on August 8. Today, Ian Millhiser at Vox explained that Cannon’s order could delay the FBI investigation by as much as years (other analysts argue that she has cut off only one avenue of investigation, so they believe it will not be that big a speedbump). The Department of Justice can appeal the decision, which Millhiser agrees with other legal analysts is “riddled with legal errors,” but an appeal would go to the 11th circuit, where Trump appointed 6 of the 11 judges who, if they wished, could further delay the case, and then agree with Cannon. The Department of Justice could then appeal to the Supreme Court: which now has a 6 to 3 Republican majority, three of whom Trump himself appointed. 

Cannon’s order appears to have been intended to send a message. Bloomberg News legal and political reporter Zoe Tillman said today that seven senior officials who served in Republican administrations, including two former governors, a former attorney general, a former acting attorney general, and a former deputy attorney general, asked to send in a “friend of the court” brief in opposition to Trump’s request. Cannon denied their request, saying the court “appreciates the movants’ willingness to participate in this matter but does not find…[it]…warranted.” 

Millhiser asked: “Why would a judge do this unless they are trying to advertise the fact that they are not open to opposing arguments? Just accept the…brief and then don’t read it if you don’t want to make a public spectacle out of not caring what anyone says.” Los Angeles Times legal affairs columnist Harry Litman said he didn’t think he’d ever seen a court reject a friend of the court brief before. 

MAGA Republicans are standing behind Trump in his determination to overturn the 2020 election. In Michigan on Friday, six people filed a suit to order Governor Gretchen Whitmer and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson to “work together to rerun the Michigan 2020 presidential election as soon as possible.” One of those joining the suit previously handed over her township’s vote tabulator to a group trying to prove “voter fraud” in the election. 

And today, Zachary Cohen and Jason Morris of CNN reported that newly released surveillance video shows that on January 7, 2021, a Republican county official in Georgia escorted into her county’s election offices two operatives working with Trump’s attorneys to try to find voter fraud. That same day the voting systems were breached. The official, Cathy Latham, is under investigation for her role as a fake elector and has given conflicting testimony about her actions. Some of Trump’s allies in the fake election scheme seem also to have launched a multistate effort to gain access to voting machines after the 2020 election. 

Lies about the election from right-wing media convinced these MAGA Republicans of the Big Lie that the election had been stolen, but documents emerging from the Dominion Voting Systems lawsuit against the Fox News Channel are illustrating that the people feeding those lies knew they were false. Dominion has sued the media giant for defamation, saying its hosts knew the stories they told of the voting machines switching votes were false and that it has been “irreparably harmed” by the lies that will lead to more than $600 million in lost profits over the next 8 years. The document production has yielded a November 2020 email from an FNC producer insisting that it must keep host Jeanine Pirro off the air because she was spreading conspiracy theories to back Trump’s lies that the election had been stolen. 

And, today, New Mexico judge Francis J. Mathew ruled that Couy Griffin, the founder of Cowboys for Trump, must be removed from his office as Otero County commissioner for participating in the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. In a lawsuit brought by New Mexico citizens, Mathew ruled that Griffin is disqualified for office under the Fourteenth Amendment, which prohibits from holding office anyone who had engaged in “insurrection or rebellion” against the country. This is the first time this clause has been enforced since 1869, and the first time a court has found the attack on the Capitol was an insurrection.

Now other Republicans are weighing in to suggest that, now that the lines have been made very clear indeed, they will stand with the Constitution if there is an attempt to take the government by force. Today, eight former secretaries of defense and five former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff published an open letter in the national security outlet War on the Rocks outlining the “principles of civilian control and best practices of civil-military relations.” The leading illustration was an image of the U.S. Constitution. 

These former military leaders noted the many factors that have created “an exceptionally challenging civil-military environment,” and reiterated that “civilian control of the military is part of the bedrock foundation of American democracy.” They noted that “[t]he military—active-duty, reserve, and National Guard—have carefully delimited roles in law enforcement [that] must be taken only insofar as they are consistent with the Constitution and relevant statutes,” and that “[m]ilitary and civilian leaders must be diligent about keeping the military separate from partisan political activity.” 

This is a calmer echo of the open letter the ten living former secretaries of defense published on January 3, 2021, in the Washington Post, which called for a peaceful transition of power after the 2020 election and seemed to warn colleagues not to back the former president’s attempts to create an uprising. They said: “Efforts to involve the U.S. armed forces in resolving election disputes would take us into dangerous, unlawful and unconstitutional territory. Civilian and military officials who direct or carry out such measures would be accountable, including potentially facing criminal penalties, for the grave consequences of their actions on our republic.”

Perhaps most notably, in an interview with Greg Sargent of the Washington Post, published today, longtime conservative Bill Kristol said that, at least in the short term, the Republican Party cannot be saved. “And,” he offered, “if we don’t have two reasonably healthy parties, the unhealthy party has to be defeated.”

And, finally, the formula shortage has largely fallen out of the news, but the administration has not dropped the ball. Yesterday, the administration completed the twenty-second mission of Operation Fly Formula, which has now flown in more than 85 million 8-ounce bottle equivalents.

Biden’s “Building a Better America” despite the “radicalized” GOP

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

HCR
Heather Cox Richardson

August 24, 2022

Yesterday’s elections suggest that American voters are concerned about the past year’s radicalization of the Republican Party. In a special election for a seat in the House of Representatives in a New York state swing district, the 19th congressional district, Democrat Pat Ryan beat his Republican opponent. Pundits looked at the race as a bellwether (named for the wether, or castrated sheep, fitted with a bell to indicate where the flock was going), and most thought the Republican would win, as he was a strong candidate and the midterm election in a president’s first term usually goes to the opposite party.

Ryan’s opponent emphasized inflation and crime, but Ryan told Greg Sargent of the Washington Post: “We centered the concept of freedom…. When rights and freedoms are being taken away from people,” Ryan told Sargent, they “stand up and fight.” The Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health decision of two months ago overturning the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that protected abortion rights was a key sign of the erosion of freedom. Ryan told Sargent that “ripping away reproductive rights from tens of millions of people” was “visceral.”

So, too, are gun safety and threats to democracy. “There’s sort of this power grab of the far, far right,” Ryan told Sargent. “It’s just wildly out of step with where the vast majority of Americans are.”

This is the fourth special election since the Dobbs decision that has shown at least a two-point movement toward the Democrats. A referendum on preserving abortion rights in Kansas also went to those in favor of them.

Tom Bonier, who runs the political data firm TargetSmart, noted that women have outregistered men to vote since the Dobbs decision by large margins: 11 points in Ohio, for example. And a Pew poll released yesterday shows that 56% of voters say that the right to abortion is very important to them for their midterm votes, up from 46% before the Dobbs decision.

The trend is clear, but so is the reality that a number of states are operating under extreme Republican gerrymanders—some, like those in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Ohio, still in force although the state judges have said they are illegal—that will give Republicans a structural advantage.

Biden administration officials are currently touring the country to call attention to how the administration is “Building a Better America.” In 35 trips to 23 states, they will “make clear that the President and Congressional Democrats beat the special interests and delivered what was best for the American people.” They are emphasizing the bipartisan infrastructure bill, the CHIPS and Science Act, the Inflation Reduction Act, the gun safety law, and so on. They are urging Americans to unite not by party, but against the extremism on display in the leadership of the current Republican Party. “Every step of the way, Congressional Republicans sided with the special interests—pushing an extreme MAGA agenda that costs families.”

Since the 1980s, Republicans have argued for cutting public programs because they cost too much money, while also arguing that tax cuts for the wealthy would pay for themselves by expanding the economy, thus increasing tax revenues. It has never worked—when government computers showed that President Ronald Reagan’s first tax cut would explode the deficit, the budget director simply reprogrammed them—but that has not stopped the Republicans from passing repeated tax cuts for the wealthy, one as recently as December 2017.

Republicans have warned that the massive investment the Democrats have made in the country during Biden’s term would rack up enormous deficits. But, in fact, today the Office of Management and Budget forecast that this year’s budget deficit will decline by $1.7 trillion, the single largest drop in the deficit in U.S. history. (The record deficit was $3.13 trillion in 2020, during the worst of the coronavirus pandemic.) This number is simply a benchmark, and the deficit remains at $1.03 trillion, but it suggests that numbers are currently moving downward.

Today, Biden announced another key change in American policy, this time in education. The Department of Education will cancel up to $20,000 of student debt for Pell Grant recipients with loans held by the federal government and up to $10,000 for other borrowers. Pell Grants are targeted at low-income students. Individuals who make less than $125,000 a year or couples who make less than $250,000 a year are eligible. The current pause on federal student loan repayment will be extended once more, through the end of 2022, and the Education Department will try to negotiate a cap on repayments of 5% of a borrower’s discretionary income, down from the current 10%.

The Department of Education estimates that almost 90% of the relief in the measure will go to those earning less than $75,000 a year, and about 43 million borrowers will benefit from the plan.

Opponents of the plan worry that it will be inflationary and that it will not address the skyrocketing cost of four-year colleges. But its supporters worry that the education debt crisis locks people into poverty. They also note that there was very little objection to the forgiveness of 10.2 million Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans issued as of July 2022, with $72,500 being the average dollar amount forgiven.

The administration’s plan is a significant pushback to what has happened to education funding since the 1980s. After World War II, the U.S. funded higher education through a series of measures that increased college attendance while also keeping prices low. Beginning in the 1980s, that funding began to dry up and tuition prices rose to make up the difference.

A college education became crucial for a high-paying job, but wages didn’t rise along with the cost of tuition, so families turned to borrowing. Many of them choose the lowest monthly repayment amounts, and some put their loans on hold, meaning their debt balances grow far beyond what they originally borrowed. The shift to “high-tuition, high-aid” caused a “massive total volume of debt,” Assistant Professor of Economics Emily Cook of Tulane University told Jessica Dickler and Annie Nova of CNBC in May. Today, around 44 million Americans owe about $1.7 trillion of educational debt.

Because of the wealth gap between white and Black Americans—the average white family has ten times the wealth of the average Black family—more Black students borrow to finance their education.

Canceling a portion of student debt is a resumption of the older system, ended in the 1980s, under which the government funded cheaper education in the belief it was a social good. In his explanation of the plan, White House National Economic Council Director Bharat Ramamurti told reporters today that “87% of the dollars…are going to people making under $75,000 a year, and 0 dollars, 0%, are going to anybody making over $125,000 in individual income.” He told them it was “instructive” to compare this plan “to what the Republican tax bill did in 2017. It’s basically the reverse. Fifteen percent of the benefits went to people making under $75,000 a year, and 85% went to people making over $75,000 a year. And if you zoom in even more on that, people making over $250,000 a year got nearly half of the benefits of the GOP tax bill and are getting 0 dollars under our [plan].”