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].”

“Unconscionably excessive” prices for oil? Hell, yeah!

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

HCR
Heather Cox Richardson

June 14, 2022

Today the White House announced that President Joe Biden will visit the Middle East next month. His first stop will be in Israel, and then he will go to Saudi Arabia, where he will meet with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the man responsible for the murder and dismemberment of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. MBS recently invested $2 billion in Jared Kushner’s new investment fund against the advice of the funds’ advisors.

In 2019, Biden promised to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” in part because of the Khashoggi killing, but administration officials have been quietly visiting for months, in part to urge Saudi Arabia to increase oil production to help ease gas prices in the U.S. While the White House maintains that it is looking for a “reset” with the Saudis in order to promote peace talks between Israel and Palestine, end the war in Yemen, and address human rights violations, it acknowledges that oil production is on the table. 

Inflation is high in the U.S., as it is all over the world, because of demand, supply chain problems, the soaring costs of transportation as the world’s few carriers jack up prices, and so on. But that inflation is driven in large part by higher oil prices, which have driven up the price of gasoline and diesel in the U.S., which in turn makes everything more expensive. 

Since the first public hearing of the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol last week, much of the traffic on right-wing social media has been about gas prices, blaming them on President Biden. Republicans see gas prices and inflation as key issues both to distract from the hearings and to enable Republicans to take over control of Congress in the November midterm elections. 

In fact, according to a piece by E. Rosalie in the newsletter Hoaxlines, U.S. production of crude oil during Biden’s first year was actually higher than it was in Trump’s first year. To encourage production, Biden’s officials have issued more permits on federal lands than were issued in the Trump administration’s first three years, at a pace that approaches that of George W. Bush’s administration. Only 10% of all U.S. drilling takes place on federal land, but the Bureau of Land Management confirms that more than 9000 drilling permits on public land are currently approved. Not all would be productive if they were developed, and none of them could start producing immediately, but this undercuts the argument that gas prices are high because the Biden administration has choked off permits.  

Russia’s war on Ukraine has also driven up global oil prices, but the U.S. gets less than 2% of its oil from Russia. 

What appears to be driving U.S. gas prices is the pressure investors are putting on oil companies, whose officers answer to their investors. Limited production creates higher prices that are driving record profits. In a March 2022 survey of 141 U.S. oil producers asking them why they were holding back production, 59% said they were under investor pressure. Only 6% blamed “government regulations” for their lack of increased production. 

Oil companies are seeing huge profits and are using the money for stock buybacks to raise stock prices. BP, Shell, ExxonMobil, Chevron, TotalEnergies, Eni, and Equinor will give between $38 and $41 billion to shareholders through buyback programs this year. As EOG Resources wrote to its shareholders: “2021 was a record-setting year for EOG. We earned record net income of $4.7 billion, generated a record $5.5 billion of free cash flow, which funded record cash return of $2.7 billion to shareholders. We doubled our regular dividend rate and paid two special dividends, paying out about 30% of cash from operations…. This period of high oil prices allows us to further bolster the balance sheet. To support our renewed $5 billion buyback authorization and prepare to take advantage of other countercyclical opportunities, we plan to build and carry a higher cash balance going forward….”

But congressional Republicans appear uninterested in adjusting the disjunction between supply and demand that is creating such high consumer prices. In May the House passed the Consumer Fuel Price Gouging Prevention Act by a vote of 217 to 207 with only Democrats in the yes column and all Republicans and four Democrats voting no. The bill provided a vague warning that it is unlawful to charge “unconscionably excessive” prices for consumer fuel during presidentially declared energy emergencies, and it gave the Federal Trade Commission more power to punish price gouging. 

The Senate has not moved forward with the bill. Republicans there can kill it with the filibuster and will do so, despite the fact that a Morning Consult/Politico poll shows that 77% of registered voters—including 76% of Republicans—like such a measure. Only 13% of voters outright oppose such a law (10% have no opinion). 

Biden has sought to address the issue with the tools at his command. After trying to ease pressure by releasing oil from the strategic reserve, he has set out to reduce the nation’s demand for oil products by identifying the conversion to clean energy as a national security issue. On June 6 he vowed to “continue…pushing Congress to pass clean energy investments and tax cuts” but also authorized the use of the Defense Production Act to speed up the domestic production of solar panel parts, building insulation, heat pumps, and power grid infrastructure like transformers. He will also lower tariffs on solar technology coming to the U.S. from Southeast Asia for two years. These measures should ensure a reliable supply of solar panels while creating more jobs in the green energy sector, which currently employs more than 230,000 people in the solar industry alone.  

In addition to Biden’s measures to ease oil prices, lawmakers are trying to curb inflation by imposing the sorts of limits on carrier prices that they refuse to on oil prices. 

On Monday the House passed the Ocean Shipping Reform Act of 2022 to hamper unfair business practices among shipping carriers. The measure passed the Senate in March. Although the bills were introduced by Democrats, the votes that passed them were bipartisan, reflecting, perhaps, that the nine shipping companies that dominate the world market are multinational rather than domestic. According to Representative John Garamendi (D-CA), shippers have raised prices on U.S. businesses and consumers by more than 1000% on goods coming from Asia, enabling them to make $190 billion in profits last year, a sevenfold increase in one year. This bill, he said, “will help crush inflation and protect American jobs.” Biden has praised the bill and promises to sign it. 

And tomorrow the Federal Reserve is expected to announce an interest rate hike of three quarters of a percentage point, its highest since 1994, to combat inflation. Higher interest rates will make it more expensive to borrow money, which should cool down the economy, although getting inflation down to the 2% the Fed prefers will likely slow consumer spending, dampen wage increases, and slow economic growth.

And of course, next month, Biden will visit the Saudis, who can increase oil supplies quickly if they believe it is in their best interest to do so. 

And finally, a heads up: tomorrow’s hearing of the January 6 committee has been postponed. The next hearing is now scheduled for Thursday at 1:00 pm.

HCR: What “bipartisanship” REALLY means today

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

HCR
Heather Cox Richardson

June 8, 2021

After Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) announced this weekend that he would not support either the For the People voting act or an attempt to break the filibuster for a voting measure, but would work to get bipartisan agreement on the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, today Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell pulled the rug out from under him. 

McConnell said today that restoring the provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that protect minority voting would give too much power to the federal government and that such protection was unnecessary anyway. “The Supreme Court concluded that conditions that existed in 1965 no longer existed,” McConnell said. “So there’s no threat to the voting rights law. It’s against the law to discriminate in voting on the basis of race already. And so I think it’s unnecessary.” 

To say there is no threat to the voting rights law is delusional. The reality is that In 2013, within 24 hours of the Supreme Court’s Shelby County v. Holder decision ending the Justice Department’s oversight of certain states’ voting requirements, Texas enacted a strict voter ID law. Other states quickly followed suit. And now, in the wake of the 2020 election, Republican-dominated state legislatures across the country are drastically curtailing voting access. 

Today, more than 300 “advocacy, civic, faith and labor groups representing nearly 2.5 million Americans from 43 states and the District of Columbia” asked the president and vice president to fight for the For the People Act. “[F]air representation and voter access in America are under direct attack,” the letter read. “We are extremely worried about the very survival of our democracy.  We ask that you place the urgent passage of this bill at the top of your administration’s agenda.”

This afternoon, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said that the Senate will still vote on the For the People Act, as scheduled, in late June. He says he is open to changes to the measure if they will help get Manchin on board. But he is going to force senators to go on record for or against voting rights. 

Gone are the days when McConnell could protect his caucus from unpopular votes simply by refusing to bring anything to a vote. Republicans have had to vote on the bipartisan, independent January 6 commission, which was popular, and voted to go before the country as a party protecting insurrection. Now they will have to take a stand on other popular measures like voting rights and, if the Senate breaks up the bill, getting big money out of politics, which is even more popular, and so on.

Today, Republicans filibustered a measure designed to prohibit discrimination in pay based on sex. The bill would have limited pay differentials to things like education, training, and experience, and would have prohibited employers from retaliating against workers who compared their salaries. Blaming the Democrats for advancing what he calls “partisan” bills, McConnell pointed to the equal pay act as a sign that the “era of bipartisanship is over.”

In fact, we had an illustration of what “bipartisanship” means in today’s Senate when the Senate Rules and Administration and the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committees that investigated the January 6 insurrection today produced a bipartisan report on the events of that day. Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee chair Gary Peters (D-MI) told reporters: “There were significant, widespread and unacceptable breakdowns in the intelligence gathering. . . . The failure to adequately assess the threat of violence on that day contributed significantly to the breach of the Capitol… The attack was, quite frankly, planned in plain sight.” 

To gain bipartisan support, the report focused on communications failures. It did not explore the roles of government officials, including former president Trump, in the January 6 crisis, and it did not use the word “insurrection” apart from quotations of witness testimony. The result was a curiously sanitized rendition of the events of January. Representative Ted Lieu (D-CA) commented: “January 6th didn’t happen because there were security failures, it happened because there was a violent mob that attacked the Capitol, and we need to know why that happened.”

McConnell’s comment about the end of bipartisanship was a sweeping declaration that he would lead Republicans in opposing the Democratic program, and that includes the American Jobs Act, the extensive infrastructure bill that President Biden initially pegged at $2.3 trillion. Biden has been negotiating with Republicans, led by Senator Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, on the measure, but today called it quits after they refused to raise their offer more than $150 billion despite his offer to cut more than $1 trillion off his initial ask. Republicans blamed Biden for ending the talks. 

Biden has not, in fact, ended the talks, though: he has handed them to a different group of lawmakers who have shown a willingness to work across the aisle. That group includes Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema (D-AZ), who might be persuaded to be more reliable Democratic votes if they have a bigger hand in the infrastructure bill. If this group does manage to hammer out a bipartisan infrastructure package, a vote on it could undercut McConnell’s ability to hold his caucus in opposition to the Democrats.

The biggest sticking point in negotiations is that Democrats want to fund much of the American Jobs Act by increasing corporate taxes from the lows of the 2017 tax cuts (although not to the level they were before those cuts), while Republicans are adamant they will not sign on to any such increases. 

The Republican position took a hit this morning, when ProPublica published an investigation based on leaked tax documents. It revealed that America’s 25 richest people—some with more than $100 billion in wealth—pay remarkably little in federal income taxes…sometimes nothing. They can avoid taxes through various accounting methods, while ordinary Americans pay full fare. 

Also this morning, Biden tweeted: “I’m working hard to find common ground with Republicans when it comes to the American Jobs Plan, but I refuse to raise taxes on Americans making under $400,000 a year to pay for it. It’s long past time for the wealthy and corporations to pay their fair share.”