President Biden delivers big things for the American people, and for the world

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

Heather Cox Richardson

December 29, 2022

Today, President Joe Biden signed into law the bipartisan year-end omnibus funding bill passed by the House and the Senate before lawmakers left town.

The $1.7 trillion measure addresses key goals of both parties. It funds the military and domestic programs. It funds public health and science, invests in law enforcement, and funds programs to prevent violence against women. It funds veterans’ services, and it provides assistance to Ukraine in its struggle to protect itself against Russia’s invasion. It updates the Electoral Count Act to prevent a president from trying to overturn a presidential election, as former president Trump did.

Biden said, “This bill is further proof that Republicans and Democrats can come together to deliver for the American people, and I’m looking forward to continued bipartisan progress in the year ahead.”

But on his social media platform, Trump took a stand against the bill that funds the government. “Something is going on with [Senate minority leader] Mitch McConnell [(R-KY)] and all of the terribly and virtually automatic ‘surrenders’ he makes to the Marxist Democrats, like on the $1.7 Trillion ‘Ominous’ Bill,” Trump wrote. “Could have killed it using the Debt Ceiling, or made it MUCH better in the Republican House. Nobody can be this stupid.” Then he went on to blame the deal on McConnell’s wife, Trump’s own Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, using a racist slur.

This exchange reveals the dynamic dominating political leadership at the end of 2022. Biden and the Democrats are trying to show that the government can produce popular results for the American people. They are joined in that effort by Republicans who recognize that, for all their talk about liberty, their constituents want to see the government address their concerns. Together, they have passed the omnibus bill, as well as the CHIPS and Science Act, the bipartisan infrastructure law, and gun safety legislation.

This cooperation to pass popular legislation is an important shift in American politics.

But Trump and his cronies remain determined to return to power, apparently either to stop this federal action Trump incorrectly calls “Marxism” or, in the case of extremist Republicans, to use the government not to provide a basic social safety net, regulate business, promote infrastructure, or protect civil rights—as it has done since 1933—but instead to enforce right-wing religious values on the country. They reject the small-government economic focus of the Reagan Republicans in favor of using a strong government to enforce religion.

The determination of Trump and his team to dominate the government, and through it the country, has been illustrated powerfully once again today with the release of more transcripts from testimony before the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol. Former White House director of strategic communications Alyssa Griffin recalled how Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, dismissed the idea that the Trump administration should coordinate with the incoming Biden officials over the coronavirus pandemic. “It was the first COVID… meeting that Jared led after [Biden won],” Griffin recalled, “& Dr. Birx… said, “Well, should we be looping the Biden transition into these conversations?” & Jared just said, ‘Absolutely not.’”

Similarly, in an extraordinarily petty exchange, the chief of staff to former first lady Melania Trump, Stefanie Grisham, recalled that Trump wanted to fire the chief White House usher, Tim Harleth, for being in contact with the Biden team about the presidential transition. (Secret Service agents told Trump about the contact, raising more questions about the role of the agents around Trump.) Melania Trump stopped the firing out of concern for the stories Harleth could tell about the Trump family, but he was let go just before Biden’s inauguration, leaving the Biden’s standing before the closed doors of the White House for an awkwardly long time when they entered for the first time.

This determination of far-right Republicans to bend the country to their will presents a problem for the Republican Party. Establishment Republicans came around to backing Trump in 2017 after he promised them lower taxes and less regulation, the goals they had embraced since the presidency of Ronald Reagan.

But Trump managed to stay in power by feeding the reactionaries in the party: those who reject the idea of American equality. Trump’s base is fiercely opposed to immigration and against the rights of LGBTQ Americans, while also in favor of curtailing the rights of women and minorities. Rejecting the equality at the heart of liberal democracy, many of them hope to enforce religious rules on the rest of the country and admire Russian president Vladimir Putin and Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán for replacing democracy with what Orbán has called “Christian democracy,” or “illiberal democracy” that enforces patriarchal heterosexual hierarchies. As Trump encouraged them to, many of them reject as “fraudulent” any elections that do not put their candidates in power.

Now, as Republican establishment leaders recognize that Trump’s star is fading and his legal troubles seem likely to get worse—his tax returns will be released tomorrow, among other things—they seem eager to cut Trump loose to resurrect their anti-tax, anti-regulation policies. But those Americans who reject democracy and want a strong government to enforce their values are fighting for control of the Republican Party.

The far right has turned against Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel, whom Trump hand-picked and who helped arrange the false electors in 2020. Trump loyalist Mike Lindell, the pillow magnate, is challenging McDaniel. Of more concern to her is the challenge of Harmeet Dhillon, a prominent election denier who has provided legal counsel for Trump in his struggles against the January 6th committee, calling it “a purely political witch-hunt, total abuse of process & power serving no legitimate legislative purpose.” Orbán supporter and Fox News Channel personality Tucker Carlson and Turning Points USA founder Charlie Kirk are backing Dhillon.

Kirk, who is a prodigious fundraiser, has warned the RNC that the party must listen “to the grassroots, our donors, and the biggest organizations and voices in the conservative movement” or it would lose in 2024. “If ignored, we will have the most stunted and muted Republican Party in the history of the conservative movement, the likes of which we haven’t seen in generations.”

The far right is also challenging the bid of House minority leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) for House speaker, creating such havoc that today former Republican representative, senator, and secretary of defense William S. Cohen and former congressional staff director and presidential senior fellow emeritus at the Council on Foreign Relations Alton Frye published an op-ed in the New York Times warning that “the Republican caucus is dominated by campaigns and commitments that gravely encumber efforts to define common ground in the political center.” They urged House members to recruit a moderate speaker from outside the chamber and to “fortify those Republicans who seek to move the party beyond the corrosive Trump era.”

They called for a secret ballot, so Republican members won’t have to fear retaliation.

Cohen and Frye suggested that organization of the House by an outsider would allow for “meaningful coalition building,” but the Republicans about to take control of the House have so far indicated only that they intend to investigate the Biden administration before the 2024 election, a throwback to the methods party leaders have used since 1994 to win elections by portraying the Democrats as corrupt.

Representatives James Comer (R-KY) and Jim Jordan (R-OH), who are expected to take over the House Oversight Committee and the House Judiciary Committee, respectively, have already demanded records from the White House. When White House Special Counsel Richard Sauber said the White House would respond to those committees after the Republicans were in charge of them—a position administrations have as taken since the 1980s—Comer and Jordan took to social media today to complain that “at every turn the Biden White House seeks to obstruct congressional oversight and hide information from the American people.” (Jordan, of course, refused to respond to a subpoena from the January 6th committee.)

The year 2022 has seen an important split in the Republican Party. The party’s response to voters’ dislike appears to be either to reject democracy altogether or to double down on the old rhetoric that has worked in the past, although you have to wonder if they have gone to that well so many times it’s drying up.

In the meantime, the Democrats have worked with willing Republicans to demonstrate that lawmakers in a democracy really can accomplish big things for the American people, and for the world.

“We can never surrender to democracy’s enemies”

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

Heather Cox Richardson

December 24, 2022

Today, by a vote of 225 to 201, the House passed the 4,155-page omnibus spending bill necessary to fund the government through September 30, 2023. The Senate passed it yesterday by a bipartisan vote of 68–29, and President Joe Biden has said he will sign it as soon as it gets to his desk.

The measure establishes nondefense discretionary spending at about $773 billion, an increase of about $68 billion, or 6%. It increases defense spending to $858 billion, an increase of about 10%. Defense funding is about $45 billion more than Biden had requested, reflecting the depletion of military stores in Ukraine, where the largest European war since World War II is raging, and the recognition of a military buildup with growing tensions between the U.S. and China.

Senators Patrick J. Leahy (D-VT) and Richard C. Shelby (R-AL) and Representative Rosa L. DeLauro (D-CT) hammered out the bill over months of negotiations. Leahy and Shelby are the two most senior members of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and both are retiring at the end of this session. Shelby told the Senate: “We know it’s not perfect, but it’s got a lot of good stuff in it.”

House Republicans refused to participate in the negotiations, tipping their hand to just how disorganized they are right now. House minority leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) insisted that the measure should wait until the Republicans take control of the House in 11 days. This reflects the determination of far-right extremists in the party to hold government funding hostage in order to get concessions from the Democrats.

But their positions are so extreme that most Republicans wanted to get the deal done before they could gum it up. Indeed, right now they are refusing to back Republican minority leader McCarthy for speaker, forcing him to more and more extreme positions to woo them. Earlier this week, McCarthy publicly claimed that if he becomes House speaker, he will reject any bill proposed by a senator who voted yes on the omnibus bill. After the measure passed the House, McCarthy spoke forcefully against it, prompting Representative Jim McGovern (D-MA) to say: “After listening to that, it’s clear he doesn’t have the votes yet.”

The measure invests in education, childcare, and healthcare, giving boosts to the National Institute of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and investing in mental health programs. It addresses the opioid crisis and invests in food security programs and in housing and heating assistance programs. It invests in the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Park Service and makes a historic investment in the National Science Foundation. It raises the pay for members of the armed forces, and it invests in state and local law enforcement. It will also provide supplemental funding of about $45 billion for Ukraine aid and $41 billion for disaster relief. It reforms the Electoral Count Act to prevent a plan like that hatched by former president Donald Trump and his cronies to overturn an election, and it funds prosecutions stemming from the January 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.

“A lot of hard work, a lot of compromise,” Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer, (D-NY) said. “But we funded the government with an aggressive investment in American families, American workers, American national defense.” Schumer called the bill “one of the most significant appropriations packages we’ve done in a really long time.”

And so, members of Congress are on their way home, in the nation’s severe winter storm, for the winter holiday.

It is a fitting day for the congress members to go home, some to come back in January, others to leave their seats in Congress to their successors. On this day in December 1783, General George Washington stood in front of the Confederation Congress, meeting at the senate chamber of the Maryland State House, to resign his wartime commission. Negotiators had signed the Treaty of Paris ending the Revolutionary War on September 3, 1783, and once the British troops had withdrawn from New York City, Washington believed his job was done.

“The great events on which my resignation depended having at length taken place; I have now the honor of offering my sincere Congratulation s to Congress and of presenting myself before them to surrender into their hands the trust committed to me, and to claim the indulgence of retiring from the Service of my Country,” he told the members of Congress.

“Happy in the confirmation of our Independence and Sovereignty, and pleased with the opportunity afforded the United States of becoming a respectable Nation, I resign with satisfaction the Appointment I accepted with diffidence.”

“Having now finished the work assigned me, I retire from the great theatre of Action; and bidding an Affectionate farewell to this August body under whose orders I have so long acted, I here offer my Commission, and take my leave of all the employments of public life.”

In 1817, given the choice of subjects to paint for the rotunda in the U.S. Capitol, being rebuilt after the British had burned it during the War of 1812, fine artist John Trumbull picked the moment of Washington’s resignation. As they discussed the project, he told President James Madison: “I have thought that one of the highest moral lessons ever given to the world, was that presented by the conduct of the commander-in-chief, in resigning his power and commission as he did, when the army, perhaps, would have been unanimously with him, and few of the people disposed to resist his retaining the power which he had used with such happy success, and such irreproachable moderation.”

Madison agreed, and the painting of a man voluntarily giving up power hangs today in the U.S. Capitol, in the Rotunda. It hung there over the January 6 rioters as they tried to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election and put in place their candidate, who insisted he should remain in power despite the will of the American people.

Yesterday’s release of the report of the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol reviewed the material the committee has already explained, but it did have a number of revelations.

One is that former president Trump was not simply the general instigator of the Big Lie that he had won the election, and the person egging on his violent supporters, but also that he was the prime instigator of the attempt to file false slates of electors. This puts him at the heart of the attempt to defraud the U.S. government and to interfere with an official proceeding. On page 346, the report says: “The evidence indicates that by December 7th or 8th, President Trump had decided to pursue the fake elector plan and was driving it.” In that effort, he had the help of Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel, even after White House lawyers had called the plan illegal and had backed away from it.

Committee chair Bennie Thompson (D-MS)’s introduction to the report put Trump’s effort in the larger context of a history that reaches all the way back to the American Revolution. “Our country has come too far to allow a defeated President to turn himself into a successful tyrant by upending our democratic institutions, fomenting violence, and…opening the door to those in our country whose hatred and bigotry threaten equality and justice for all Americans.”

“We can never surrender to democracy’s enemies. We can never allow America to be defined by forces of division and hatred. We can never go backward in the progress we have made through the sacrifice and dedication of true patriots. We can never and will never relent in our pursuit of a more perfect union with liberty and justice for all Americans.”

“Mild and loving” Trump may soon face criminal charges for January 6th

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

Heather Cox Richardson

December 18, 2022

As I wrote last night, it looks like this is going to be one heck of a week. Tomorrow afternoon at 1:00, the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol will hold its last public hearing. It is expected to vote on whether to refer former president Trump to the Department of Justice for criminal charges. Then, on Wednesday, it is scheduled to release its report, which is said to be around 1000 pages.

These looming events appear to be causing Trump concern. On Truth Social yesterday, he gave his opinion of the whole proceeding: “They say that the Unselect Committee of Democrats, Misfits, and Thugs, without any representation from Republicans in good standing, is getting ready to recommend Criminal Charges to the highly partisan, political, and Corrupt ‘Justice’ Department for the ‘PEACEFULLY & PATRIOTICLY’ speech I made on January 6th. This speech and my actions were mild & loving, especially when compared to Democrats wild spewing of HATE. Why didn’t they investigate massive Election Fraud or send in the Troops? SCAM!” (The quotation is produced here as it appeared.)

Today he continued to post similar statements.

Meanwhile, Andrew Solender and Alayna Treene of Axios reported today that the Republicans are planning to issue their own 100-page report, focusing on what they say are security failures, claiming that the January 6th committee has “never dealt with the serious issues.” The committee report is expected to discuss security failures.

One of the authors of this Republican “shadow” report is Representative Jim Jordan (R-OH), himself implicated in the attempt to overturn the election. Another is Representative Jim Banks (R-IN), whom Representative Liz Cheney (R-WY) called out in October 2021 for falsely representing himself as the ranking member of the actual January 6th committee.

House minority leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) warned the January 6th committee to preserve all its materials. Chair Bennie Thompson (D-MS) seemed unimpressed. Not only does the committee have to preserve all its materials by law, but it intends to make its material available to the public. “He’s the public. If he wants access to it, all he has to do is go online and he’ll have it,” he told Solender.

But that is not all that’s going on this week.

Congress continues to hammer out a big funding bill to keep the government funded through the end of next September. This is entangled in the Republican Party’s internal chaos. The far-right members of the House caucus don’t want a deal before they take control of the House, expecting that they can exert pressure on the administration to do as they wish by refusing to fund the government. Meanwhile, Senate Republicans recognize the mess that would create and have worked to get a deal finalized. Still, a few Senate Republicans are now backing the House extremists, apparently unwilling to open themselves to the charge of cooperating with Democrats.

Until last Thursday it appeared that one of the things that would make its way into the funding bill was a deal on immigration reform. Greg Sargent of the Washington Post was following the story closely and noted that by early December, Senators Thom Tillis (R-NC) and Kyrsten Sinema (I-AZ) appeared to have hammered out a deal that offered to Democrats a path to citizenship for about 2 million “dreamers,” people who were brought to the U.S. by their parents without documentation and have never known any home but this one. It offered protections for migrant rights by providing up to $40 billion for processing those coming to the U.S. to seek asylum; the money will pay for more processing centers, more judges, and more asylum officers.

To Republicans it offered more resources for removing migrants who don’t qualify for asylum. It offered more funding for officers at the border. And it continued the Title 42 restrictions on migrants until the new processing centers were ready.

Title 42 is a law that permits the government to keep contagious diseases out of the country, and Trump put it in place in March 2020 at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, not least because it enabled him to stop considering migrants for asylum as required by U.S. and international law (Title 42 had only been used once before, in 1929, to keep ships from China and the Philippines, where there was a meningitis outbreak, from coming into U.S. ports). Extremist Republicans like using Title 42 as a way to stop immigration to this country, although technically it is an emergency rule.

But while the potential reform package drew support from conservative outlets like the Wall Street Journal editorial board, right-wing extremists opposed it, claiming that the pathway toward citizenship for dreamers would, as anti-immigrant Trump adviser Stephen Miller said, “turn the present tsunami of minor-smuggling into a biblical flood.”

As of last Thursday, the immigration deal was off the table. Republicans objected to it and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said he would not let it be attached to the funding bill even if the negotiators could hammer out the last details.

So what does this have to do with next week? On Friday the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled that Title 42 must end on December 21 unless the Supreme Court steps in.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention under the Biden administration tried to end the rule last April, saying public health no longer warranted it. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said the policy would end on May 23, permitting those who had been turned away under the policy to apply for asylum. “Let me be clear, Mayorkas said, “those unable to establish a legal basis to remain in the United States will be removed.” Nonetheless, Stephen Miller promptly said that ending Title 42 “will mean armageddon on the border. This is how nations end.”

More than 20 Republican-dominated states immediately sued the administration, insisting that Biden was trying to put in place “open border policies” rather than simply ending the pandemic-related policy. In May a Trump-appointed judge in Louisiana blocked the lifting of the rule. In November, U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan vacated the rule, saying it was “arbitrary and capricious,” but gave the administration until mid-December to prepare for the change. Now a federal court has decided the rule must end this Wednesday.

What this change will look like is not clear. It does not magically create “open borders” as Republicans charge; it simply restores the law as it was before March 2020. This will have one immediate consequence: under ordinary immigration law, making an attempt to cross the border after being rejected bears a heavy penalty, which it does not under Title 42. The lack of that penalty under Title 42 meant migrants made repeated attempts, one of the factors that has so inflated the number of immigrant “encounters” in the past two years. So the change is likely to slow down repeated attempts to cross the border.

The Department of Homeland Security has released a six-point plan for managing what it expects will be an increase in the number of migrants. It will hire about 1000 additional Border Patrol processing coordinators and add another 2500 personnel—both contractors and government workers—to work in ten new “soft-sided” facilities, which will increase capacity by about a third. It will continue increasing transportation for migrants to places farther from the border, to avoid overcrowding.

But, Secretary Mayorkas says, our system is “fundamentally broken.” It is “outdated” at every level, and “in the absence of congressional action to reform the immigration and asylum systems, a significant increase in migrant encounters will strain our system even further. Addressing this challenge will take time and additional resources, and we need the partnership of Congress, state and local officials, NGOs, and communities to do so.”

And yet, for the Republicans there is an obvious political payoff to leaving the situation unaddressed.

Representative Lauren Boebert (R-CO) tweeted today: “With Title 42 ending, our nation is going to be overrun with illegals worse than at just about any other point in history. Remember, this is intentional and all part of Biden’s systematic destruction of America.” Republican extremists are already demanding that the incoming Republican House majority impeach Secretary Mayorkas.

In a week when a former Republican president seems likely to make history as the first president to be referred to the Justice Department for criminal charges, it seems likely we’ll hear a great deal indeed from Republicans about the end of Title 42.

HCR: The real truth on what’s happening at the U.S. borders

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American | March 13

Heather Cox Richardson

Republican pundits and lawmakers are, once again, warning of an immigration crisis at our southern border.

Texas governor Greg Abbott says that if coronavirus spreads further in his state, it will not be because of his order to get rid of masks and business restrictions, but because President Biden is admitting undocumented immigrants who carry the virus. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) is also talking up the immigration issue, suggesting (falsely) that the American Rescue Plan would send $1400 of taxpayer money “to every illegal alien in America.”  

Right-wing media is also running with stories of a wave of immigrants at the border, but what is really happening needs some untangling.

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