Speaker Mike Johnson and other extremist Republicans make it clear they are not interested in aiding Ukraine

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

Heather Cox Richardson

October 31, 2023

Today, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin testified before the Senate Appropriations Committee about the need to fund military aid to both Ukraine and Israel, along with humanitarian aid to Ukraine, Israel, and Gaza and increased U.S. border security, rather than accept the new measure from extremist House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA). Johnson wants to split off funding for Israel into its own bill and couple it with cuts to the Internal Revenue Service. Those cuts would dramatically decrease tax audits of those with the highest income and thus decrease revenue for the U.S. Treasury; they are popular with Republicans. 

Johnson and other extremist Republicans have made it clear they are not interested in continuing to help Ukraine fight off Russia’s invasion. 

Blinken and Austin got strong support not only from Senate Democrats, but also from many Senate Republicans, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who explained why it is important for the United States to “help Ukraine win the war” in a speech at the University of Louisville where he introduced Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States, Oksana Markarova.

“If Russia prevails, there’s no question that Putin’s appetite for empire will extend to NATO [the North Atlantic Treaty Organization], raising the threat to the U.S. transatlantic alliance and the risk of war for America. Such an outcome would demand greater permanent deployment of our military force in Europe, a much greater cost than the support we have provided to Ukraine. And of course, Russian victory would embolden Putin’s growing alliance with fellow authoritarian regimes in Iran and China.”

“So this is not just a test for Ukraine,” McConnell said. “It’s a test for the United States and the free world.”

But at the Senate hearing, protesters from CodePink, the group that describes itself as “a feminist grassroots organization working to end U.S. warfare and imperialism,” had a different agenda. They held up their hands, covered in red paint, with the word “GAZA” written on their forearms, repeatedly interrupting Blinken and calling for an end to funding for Israel, citing what the organization calls “Israel’s genocide of Palestine.” 

Over the weekend, as Palestinian militants continued to fire rockets into Israel and skirmish with Israeli troops, Israel began to push into northern Gaza in a ground operation U.S. officials said had been changed from the originally planned massive Israeli ground offensive to “surgical” strikes that would hit high-value Hamas targets but spare Palestinian civilians. 

That advance was accompanied by even fiercer airstrikes than previous ones, and today an attack on a Palestinian refugee camp appears to have caused significant civilian loss. The Israeli military said the attack “eliminated many terrorists and destroyed terror infrastructure,” with underground Hamas installations collapsing and taking adjacent buildings down with them.

From the time of Hamas’s initial strike against Israel on October 7, the Biden administration has been keen to stop the crisis from spreading. President Joe Biden was firm in his repeated declarations that the U.S would stand firmly behind Israel, warning “any country, any organization, anyone thinking of taking advantage of this situation, I have one word: Don’t.  Don’t.” 

To deter militants backed by Iran, the U.S. moved two American aircraft carrier strike groups into the region. After repeated drone strikes against U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria, on Wednesday, October 25, Biden warned Iran that the U.S. would respond if Iran continued to move against U.S. troops. On October 27 the U.S. carried out airstrikes against munitions stockpiles stored at two facilities in eastern Syria linked to militants backed by Iran. Secretary of Defense Austin emphasized that the U.S. actions were “precision self-defense strikes” and were separate from the conflict in Gaza. 

Drone attacks on U.S. troops in the area have increased, and the Institute for the Study of War assessed today that Iranian-backed militants, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah, “are creating the expectation in the information environment that Hezbollah will escalate against Israel on or around November 3.” The U.S. today announced it is sending 300 additional troops to U.S. Central Command, whose responsibility includes the Middle East, Central Asia and parts of South Asia, to protect U.S. troops from drone attacks by Iran-backed militant groups. Air Force Brigadier General Pat Ryder told reporters the troops are not going to Israel. 

In addition to trying to hold off Iran from expanding the conflict, the U.S. has been trying to support Israel’s right to respond while also demanding that Israel follow the rules of war. The U.S. has firmly condemned the October 7 attack by Hamas on Israeli civilians as “an act of sheer evil.” That evil included the taking of hostages—which is a war crime—including U.S. citizens.

But, all along, the administration has warned Israel that it must not violate international law in its retaliation for the attack. On October 18, in a remarkable admission, Biden advised Israelis not to be consumed by their rage. “After 9/11, we were enraged in the United States. And while we sought justice and got justice, we also made mistakes.” 

Responding to the October 7 massacre, he said, “requires being deliberate. It requires asking very hard questions. It requires clarity about the objectives and an honest assessment about whether the path you are on will achieve those objectives.” 

Despite the administration’s warnings, while international eyes are on Gaza, according to the United Nations, settlers in the West Bank encouraged by the policies of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu have killed at least 115 Palestinians, injured more than 2,000 more, and forcibly displaced almost 1,000. The United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross are concerned that Israel’s pursuit of Hamas militants has led it to commit war crimes of its own, enacting collective punishment on the civilians of Gaza by denying them food, water, and electricity as well as instructing them to leave their homes, displacing well over a million people. 

While the U.S. says it does not trust the numbers of casualties asserted by Hamas, it believes from other sources that there have been “many thousands of civilian deaths in Gaza thus far in the conflict…. Way too many.” Today the National Security Council’s coordinator for strategic communications, John Kirby, reminded reporters: “We aren’t on the ground fighting in this war. There’s no intent to do that…. [T]hese are Israeli military operations. They get to decide what their aims and strategy are. They get to decide what their tactics are. They get to decide how they’re going to decide to go after Hamas.

“We’re doing everything we can to support them—including providing our perspectives, including asking them hard questions about their aims and their strategy and—the kind of questions we’d ask ourselves.”

The administration appears to be trying to defend Israel’s right to self-defense in the face of a massacre that took the lives of 1,400 Israelis, while also trying to recover the hostages, get humanitarian aid into Gaza, and prevent U.S. ally Israel from committing war crimes in retaliation for the attack. It is also insisting there must be a long-term plan for Israel and the Palestinians. To that end, it is throwing its weight behind the long-neglected two-state solution. 

On October 27, U.S. Representative to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield echoed Biden’s statement that “there is no going back to the status quo as it stood on October 6th. We must not go back to the status quo where Hamas terrorizes Israel and uses Palestinian civilians as human shields,” she said. “And we must not go back to the status quo where extremist settlers can attack and terrorize Palestinians in the West Bank. The status quo is untenable and it is unacceptable.”

“[W]hen this crisis is over,” she said, “there has to be a vision of what comes next. In our view, that vision must be centered around a two-state solution. Getting there will require concerted efforts by all of us—Israelis, Palestinians, regional partners, and global leaders—to put us on a path for peace. To integrate Israel with the region, while insisting that the aspirations of the Palestinian people be part of a more hopeful future.”

The current crisis might have made that two-state solution more possible than it has been for a generation. Neither Hamas nor Netanyahu’s government supports a two-state solution, but other leaders in the region, including Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, say they do.

Hamas has little support outside of Iran, and up to 80% of Israelis blame Prime Minister Netanyahu for the October 7 attack. His leadership of a right-wing coalition has shielded him from corruption charges even as his attempts to gain more control over Israeli society sparked the largest protests in Israeli history, and there is no doubt the attack and his response to it have weakened him dramatically. At a news conference yesterday, a reporter asked if he would resign.

The recent peace talks in Egypt excluded Hamas, Iran, and Israel. Instead, the organizers invited Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestinian Authority that oversees the West Bank. President Biden, Secretary of State Blinken, and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan have been meeting with officials from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan. On Friday, Blinken will travel back to Israel to meet with officials there, after which he will make other stops in the region.

Republicans have elected a pro-Trump extremist as speaker

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

Heather Cox Richardson

October 25, 2023

Today, the United States House of Representatives elected a new speaker to replace former speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), who was ousted by Republican extremists. The new speaker, Representative Mike Johnson of Louisiana, had an advantage over rivals because he has been a backbencher in the House fewer than eight years, too invisible to have made many enemies. He is the least-experienced speaker in more than a century. 

Senate Republicans openly admitted they didn’t know who he was. Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT) added: “Apparently experience isn’t necessary for the speaker job…. We’re down to folks who haven’t had leadership or chairmanship roles, which means their administration of the House will be a new experience for them.”

The Republican conference decided to back Johnson after extremists scuttled their first choice after McCarthy, Louisiana representative Steve Scalise, and after a block of Republicans refused to back Trump loyalist Jim Jordan of Ohio. After Jordan, Minnesota representative Tom Emmer got the nod from the conference…until former president Trump expressed his disapproval. 

Democrats repeatedly offered to work with Republicans to elect a speaker who accepted the results of the 2020 presidential election and who agreed to bring to the floor for an up-or-down vote legislation that was widely popular in both parties. The Republicans rejected those offers.

Instead, they have elected a pro-Trump extremist as speaker.

Johnson was instrumental in Trump’s attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. Routinely in touch with Trump, he rallied his colleagues to object to counting the electoral votes from states that Democratic candidate Joe Biden won. As Trump’s legal challenges to the results failed, Johnson pushed a Texas lawsuit against the four states that had given Biden the win, calling for the invalidation of millions of his fellow Americans’ ballots, and echoed lies about Venezuelan interference with ballots. 

Johnson has also embraced the far right’s culture wars. He is a self-described evangelical Christian who is staunchly anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ rights, anti-union, and anti-immigration. He has close ties to the Israeli right wing, and he opposes further aid to Ukraine, saying such money would be better spent at home, but he has also called for extensive cuts to domestic spending programs. 

When a reporter asked Johnson about his efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election, the colleagues surrounding him booed and told the reporter to “shut up.” On the floor of the House, every single Republican voted for Johnson.

And so, the House Republicans have caved to the MAGA extremists. Representative Pete Aguilar (D-CA) said that for the Republicans, the search for a speaker hadn’t been about looking for someone interested in “growing the middle class, helping our communities, keeping the cost of healthcare lower, and making life for everyday Americans better.” Instead, Aguilar said, “this has been about one thing…who can appease Donald Trump. House Republicans have put their names behind someone who has been called the most important architect of the [2020] electoral college objections.” A Republican yelled back: “Damn right!” 

The Republicans appear to be planning to go before the voters in 2024 with a presidential candidate who is deeply enmeshed in trials over allegedly criminal behavior, whose hastily appointed Supreme Court justices overturned the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision recognizing the constitutional right to abortion, and who tried to steal the 2020 election. Alongside him, they have now elevated a fervently anti-abortion House speaker who backed the former president’s effort to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. 

Voters resoundingly rejected both of those positions in 2022. 

In contrast to his Republican colleagues, in his welcome to the new speaker, House minority leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) outlined his caucus’s efforts to work with Republicans in a bipartisan way, noting that it was the Democrats who provided the votes to raise the debt ceiling, to pass a continuing resolution to fund the government and thus avoid a shutdown, and to secure disaster assistance for Americans suffering from extreme weather events. 

Going forward, he said, House Democrats will “continue to push back against extremism in this chamber and throughout the country. House Democrats will continue to protect Social Security, protect Medicare, protect Medicaid, protect our children, protect our climate, protect low-income families, protect working families, protect the middle class, protect organized labor, protect the LGBTQ community, protect our veterans, protect older Americans, protect the Affordable Care Act, protect the right to vote, protect the peaceful transfer of power, protect our democracy, and protect a woman’s freedom to make her own reproductive health care decision.”

But Jeffries’s soft speech covered a steely message. He observed that “Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election,” adding that “[h]e’s doing a great job under difficult circumstances, and no amount of election denialism will ever change that reality.” 

Jeffries pointed out that great presidents of both parties have urged House members to “put aside partisan politics for the good of the American people,” and he noted that Americans are “understandably alarmed at the turbulence of the moment, at the chaos, the dysfunction, and the extremism that has been unleashed in this chamber, from the very beginning of this Congress.” But in what amounted to a warning to the newly empowered extremists, he continued: “But this, too, shall pass. Our country has often confronted adversity, and the good news is we always find a way to make it to the other side.”

“We faced adversity in the 1860s, in the middle of the Civil War, when the country was literally tearing itself apart. We faced adversity in October of 1929 when the stock market collapsed, plunging us into a Great Depression. We faced adversity in December of 1941, when a foreign power unexpectedly struck, plunging us into a world war with the evil empire of Nazi Germany.

“We faced adversity in the Deep South in the 1950s and 60s, when the country was struggling to reconcile the inherent contradictions between Jim Crow segregation and the glorious promises of the Constitution. We faced adversity on September 11th, 2001, when the Towers and the Pentagon were unexpectedly struck, killing thousands of lives in an instant.”

And then, by placing House Republicans in this list, Jeffries tied them to the wrong side of history. “We faced adversity right here in the House of Representatives when on January 6, 2021, a violent mob of insurrectionists incited by some in this chamber overran the House floor as part of an effort to halt the peaceful transfer of power,” he said.

And, he concluded, “[e]very time we faced adversity, the good news here in America is that we always overcome….”

Biden: “We cannot give up on a two-state solution.” Former Twitter “X” is now a source of widespread disinformation

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

Heather Cox Richardson

October 22, 2023

Today, a convoy of 20 trucks crossed into Gaza from Egypt to bring food, water, and hospital equipment. Secretary of State Antony Blinken thanked “our partners in Egypt and Israel, and the United Nations, for facilitating the safe passage of these shipments through the Rafah border crossing” after “days of exhaustive U.S. diplomatic engagement in the region and an understanding President Biden reached with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi during his recent historic visit to Israel.” Since then, Special Envoy David Satterfield has worked to get the aid flowing.

Israel had vowed not to allow any aid to Gaza until Hamas released the 210 hostages it is holding, but Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant explained that officials had to back down: “The Americans insisted and we are not in a place where we can refuse them. We rely on them for planes and military equipment. What are we supposed to do? Tell them no?”

The convoy is a test to see if Hamas will permit the aid to get to civilians. Blinken warned that if it interferes, “it will hinder the international community from being able to provide this aid. Civilian lives must be protected, and assistance must urgently reach those in need. We will continue to work closely with partners in the region to stress the importance of adhering to the law of war, supporting those who are trying to get to safety or provide assistance, and facilitating access to food, water, medical care, and shelter for citizens wherever they are located in Gaza.”

While more than 200 trucks are waiting at the border and Egypt says the crossing is now open permanently, the next convoy is not expected to cross the border until Monday, even as conditions in Gaza worsen.

The U.S. is continuing to work to get U.S. citizens and their families out of Gaza through Egypt.

Also today, Egypt held a hastily convened peace summit with leaders from Arab countries, Europe, Africa, and North America to figure out how to stop the violence in Gaza. While the parties were unable to agree on a statement, there was a broad consensus that Israel must abide by the laws of war, which prohibit making war on civilians. (Israel claims it honors this prohibition as it tries to eliminate Hamas and its infrastructure, and also to recover the hostages Hamas is holding. Hostage-taking is also prohibited by the rules of war.)

Neither Israel nor Hamas was at the meeting. The head of the Palestinian Authority (which has partial control of the West Bank), Mahmoud Abbas, spoke for the Palestinians. He decried what he called war crimes as Israeli airstrikes kill civilians, and called for a two-state solution to the crisis, although a recent Gallup poll suggests a strong majority of Palestinians do not support that effort.

Abbas’s call harks back to the longstanding plan for two independent states that Hamas rejects and that the 2020 Abraham Accords negotiated by the Trump administration undermined by normalizing relations between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain without providing for a Palestinian state. Since then, Israel has accelerated the settlement of Israelis on Palestinian lands in the West Bank.

The call to resurrect a two-state solution was echoed by Egypt’s president Sisi and Jordan’s King Abdullah II, who do not want Palestinians displaced by Israel to destabilize their countries. Chinese leader Xi Jinping backed that idea on Thursday in his first statement on the crisis, and in his own speech on Thursday, Biden also said, “We cannot give up on a two-state solution.”

Meanwhile, Israel has increased its warnings to those in the north of Gaza of an approaching ground invasion, in which those who do not evacuate risk being “identified as a partner in a terrorist organization.”

As this conflict plays out, observers have already identified widespread disinformation about it on social media. “X,” formerly known as Twitter, is one of the worst actors.

In the U.S., such disinformation pits Americans against each other, and today the U.S. sent a cable to more than 100 countries warning that U.S. intelligence officials assess that Russia is using such methods to affect the elections around the world. A senior State Department official told reporters that Russia was so successful in amplifying disinformation about the 2020 U.S. election and the COVID-19 pandemic that the Kremlin decided to up its game.

“Come hell or high water,” NY trial begins as Trump faces “corporate death penalty”

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

Heather Cox Richardson

October 3, 2023

The trial of former president Trump, his oldest sons, two associates, and the Trump Organization began today in Manhattan. Jose Pagliery, political investigations reporter for The Daily Beast, noted that the presiding judge, New York Supreme Court Justice Arthur Engoron, started with a reference to Friday’s rainstorm that flooded New York City, saying: “Weeks ago, I said we would start today ‘come hell or high water.’ Meteorologically speaking, we’ve had the high water.”

New York Attorney General Letitia James launched the investigation in 2019 after Trump fixer Michael Cohen testified before Congress that Trump had been engaging in fraud by inflating the value of his property. Last week, Justice Engoron issued a partial decision establishing that the organization and its executives committed fraud. Engoron canceled the licenses under which the organization’s New York businesses operated, provided for those businesses to be dissolved, and provided for an independent monitor to oversee the company. 

With that major point already established, the trial that began today will establish how much of the ill-gotten money must be given up, or “disgorged,” by the defendants and whether they falsified records or engaged in insurance fraud in the process of committing fraud. James has asked for a minimum of $250 million in disgorgement, along with a ruling permanently prohibiting Trump and his older sons from doing business in New York, and a five-year ban on commercial real estate transactions for Trump and the organization. 

Trump is attending the trial in person, likely because, as Pagliery noted, he cited this trial as the reason he couldn’t show up for two days of depositions in his federal case against Michael Cohen. If he didn’t show up, he would be in contempt of court. So he is there, but his goal in all his legal cases seems to be to play to the public, where his displays of victimization and dominance have always served him. 

He has already said it is “unfair” that he isn’t getting a jury trial in New York, but his lawyers explicitly said they did not want one, possibly because a bench trial gives Trump a single judge to attack rather than a jury. Today, his lawyer Alina Habba, who along with her law firm and Trump has been fined close to $1 million by a federal judge for filing a frivolous lawsuit, gave a fiery opening statement aimed at “the American people” rather than the judge. When the court broke for lunch, Trump went straight to reporters to rail at the prosecutors holding him to account.

Historian Lawrence Glickman noted that the press is emphasizing Trump’s anger at the proceedings as if a defendant’s anger matters, but it is starting to feel as if bullying and bluster to get away with breaking the rules is not as effective as it used to be. Legal analyst Lisa Rubin notes that this case is a form of “corporate death penalty” that strikes at his wealth and image, both of which are central to his identity and to his political power.

And it is not just Trump; another case announced on Friday suggests the era of real estate crime is ending. The Department of Justice announced that a California real estate executive had pleaded guilty the previous day to a multi-year scheme that looked a lot like the one Trump’s organization is charged with: fraudulently inflating the value of real estate holdings of a Michigan company in order to defraud lenders. 

“My office will not hesitate to prosecute those who lie in order to engage in financial crimes, regardless of the titles they may have,” said U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan Dawn N. Ison.

The drive for the impartial application of the rule of law is showing up among the Democrats, as they seek to illustrate the difference between them and the Republicans. New Jersey Democratic senator Bob Menendez is insisting that the federal indictment against him and his wife for bribery, fraud, and extortion in exchange for helping Egypt is a political smear campaign, but more than half of Democratic senators have called on him to resign. 

Trump is increasingly being held to account by former staff, as well. In the wake of his attacks on former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley, Trump’s former chief of staff Marine Corps General John Kelly went on the record today with Jake Tapper of CNN, confirming a number of the damning stories that emerged during Trump’s presidency about his denigration of wounded, captured, or killed military personnel as “suckers” and “losers,” with whom he didn’t want to be seen. 

Kelly called Trump: “A person that has no idea what America stands for and has no idea what America is all about. A person who cavalierly suggests that a selfless warrior who has served his country for 40 years in peacetime and war should lose his life for treason—in expectation that someone will take action. A person who admires autocrats and murderous dictators. A person that has nothing but contempt for our democratic institutions, our Constitution, and the rule of law…. There is nothing more that can be said,” he added. “God help us.”

The confirmation of Trump’s attacks on wounded or killed military personnel will not help his political support. After reading Kelly’s remarks, retired Army Major General Paul Eaton, a key advocate for veteran voting, released a video he recorded more than two years ago when he first heard the stories about Trump’s attack on the military. “Who could vote for this traitor Trump?” he asked on social media. In the video, Eaton urges veterans to “vote Democratic,” because “our country’s honor depends on it.” 

That Trump is concerned about his ebbing popularity showed tonight when his campaign released a statement demanding that the Republican National Committee cancel all future debates and focus on Trump’s evidence-free allegations that the Democrats are going to steal the 2024 election. If it refuses, the statement says, it will just show that national Republicans are “more concerned about helping Joe Biden than ensuring a safe and secure election.” 

Popular pressure against the extremism of the Republican Party showed up today when Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas recused himself from participating in a case related to the January 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. Thomas’s wife, Ginni, was a staunch supporter of Trump’s attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 election, and in the past, Thomas had voted on related cases nonetheless. Today’s case involved John Eastman, formerly one of Thomas’s law clerks. 

There were interesting signs today that the tide seems to be turning against the MAGA Republicans elsewhere, too. In an op-ed in the New York Times, former South Carolina representative Bob Inglis told his “Fellow Republicans: It’s Time to Grow Up.” He expressed regret for his votes in 1995 to shut down the government and in 1998 to impeach President Bill Clinton, and for his opposition to addressing climate change on the grounds that if Al Gore was for it, Republicans should be against it. 

But he had come to realize that “the fight wasn’t against Al Gore; it was against climate change. Just as the challenge of funding the government isn’t a referendum on Speaker McCarthy; it’s a challenge of making one out of many—E pluribus unum—and of bringing the country together to do basic things.” He called on Republicans to remember that we must face the huge challenges in our future together: language that echoes President Joe Biden, who has been making that pitch since he took office. 

The fight over funding the government has contributed to growing pressure on the extremists. The chaos in the Republican Party as the factions fought each other with no plan to fund the government until McCarthy finally had to rely on the Democrats for help passing a continuing resolution was a sign that the extremists’ power is at risk. 

Today, there was much chafing over the threats of Representative Matt Gaetz (R-FL) to challenge Speaker Kevin McCarthy of California, and he actually did it this evening, although it is not clear that he has the votes either to remove McCarthy or to prevent his reelection as speaker. What is clear is that Gaetz is forcing a showdown between the extremists and the rest of the party, and while such a showdown is sure to garner media attention, it is unlikely to leave the extremists in a stronger position.

Indeed, when he left the floor after making the motion to vacate the chair, some Democrats laughed.