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Pelosi Asks Trump to Delay the State of the Union Address

The State of the Union address gives the president an unparalleled opportunity to address the nation and talk about anything he wants to. This year's SOTU address is scheduled for Jan. 29, but Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has now sent a letter to Trump asking for it to be delayed until the government shutdown is over. She said that she cannot guarantee security for him because the Secret Service is not funded as a result of the shutdown. It is a clever ploy on her part to prevent Trump from using his address to bash the Democrats for their refusal to fund his wall.

Pelosi, ever the shrewd politician, suggested that if Trump would not agree to changing the date, he could either (1) deliver the SOTU address from the Oval Office (which means a lot less pageantry than addressing a joint session of Congress), or (2) submit the address to Congress in writing. She clearly has the power to do this. Formally, the House and Senate each pass a resolution inviting the president to address them. Neither chamber has yet done this, and a Pelosi-led House is not going to do it unless she wants it to. It is clearly on her agenda to remind Trump that Congress is a coequal branch of the government, not a lap dog for the executive, and this is an easy way to make the point.

Actually, the second option would not establish a new precedent. From 1801 to 1913, all SOTU messages were delivered to Congress in writing. Only since Woodrow Wilson's decision to show up in the House chamber and read the address to a joint session of Congress did the modern tradition of actually making a speech to Congress begin (and even then, there have been exceptions—as recently as 1981, lame duck Jimmy Carter submitted his in writing). This is because the Constitution offers only these vague guidelines for the president:

He shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.

The White House has not responded to Pelosi's request. Aides said her letter was not expected, and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) didn't like it, and said it is unbecoming of the speaker to rescind the invitation she already sent to Trump. No doubt Pelosi is going to make more moves in the next 2 years that throw Trump off balance, and that cause McCarthy to complain. (V)

Nancy Pelosi Knows How Politics Works

In addition to throwing Donald Trump a curveball (see above), Nancy Pelosi can also play hardball with her own caucus. Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-NY) was one of the most outspoken Democrats who opposed Pelosi being elected speaker again. Did Pelosi notice? In the immortal words of Sarah Palin: "You betcha." Rice very much wanted a seat on the House Judiciary Committee and Pelosi refused to give it to her. Her nominal excuse was that New York was already well represented on that committee, what with Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) being the chairman and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) also being a member. In terms of seniority, Rice should have gotten the nod over Jeffries, so no one is doubting that the message is: "You don't support me? Well, then, I won't support you. Tough." The message is especially clear since she approved of the appointment of freshperson Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D-FL) to the committee, even though two other Floridians are on it.

While we are on the subject of: "If you don't play ball with me, then I don't play ball with you," Pelosi also blocked the appointment of Rep. Anthony Brindisi (D-NY), another critic, to the Armed Services Committee. On the other hand, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), who is just starting her political career and at 29 is the youngest woman ever elected to the House, already understands how things work. She voted for Pelosi as speaker and was rewarded with a seat on the powerful House Financial Services Committee, which oversees the banks. From this perch, she could introduce legislation for one of her pet projects: postal banking. Her new boss on the committee will be another progressive woman of color, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA), and they will probably get along just fine.

Formally, committee assignments are made by the Democratic Steering Committee, but it is stacked with Pelosi loyalists. This is how power is exercised. When you oppose the leadership, you don't always get what you want. Both parties understand this very well. Absent an enforcement mechanism to make it clear to backbenchers that they do not run the show, there would be 435 speaker-wannabees in the House causing chaos every day. (V)

Schiff Hires Seven New Staffers to Investigate Trump's Connections to Russia

The new chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff (D-CA), figures to be one of the key people in the House with plans to investigate Donald Trump. He made this clear by beefing up his staff from 11 to 24 people, seven of them who will work full time investigating Trump's connections with Russia. The others will be available as needed to help out. Schiff has already made job offers to people with expertise in tracking down corruption and illicit finance, as well as to a former prosecutor. Unlike Trump, who has to settle for whatever third-rate people are willing to work for him, Schiff has already said that he is being flooded with the resumes of bright young Democratic lawyers who would give their eyeteeth to work for him. Four new Democratic representatives will also be added to the panel.

The ranking member will be Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), who as former chairman had little interest in pursuing Trump's connection to Russia. Now, he will simply be watching from the sidelines, as Schiff is not interested in working with him. What Schiff is interested in doing is handing special counsel Robert Mueller all the transcripts of interviews the committee held last year, as well as issuing subpoenas for bank and telecomm records. Just as one example, in the middle of a series of phone calls between Donald Trump Jr. and Rob Goldstone to set up the infamous Trump Tower meeting with Natalia Veselnitskaya in July 2016, Junior made one call to a different phone. Schiff wants to know whose phone that was, so he is going to subpoena phone company records to find out. If that turns out to be one of Senior's phones, it will become very difficult for the President to say he was unaware of the meeting.

Theoretically, Schiff could work with the Senate Intelligence Committee to avoid duplicate work, but since Republicans control that committee and may not be so interested in digging deeply, Schiff will probably go it alone.

Another thing Schiff is going to do is restructure the subcommittees. Currently there are subcommittees for the CIA, NSA, Defense intelligence, etc.; Schiff wants to upend that and have subcommittees that look at intelligence technology (satellites, advanced computing, artificial intelligence, etc.), counterterrorism, human capital management, and intelligence support for the military, across agencies. All in all, it will be radical change from how Nunes ran the show the past 2 years. (V)

Giuliani: Ok, Maybe There Was Collusion

Rudy Giuliani sat for a television interview on Wednesday night, which is apropos, since he is Donald Trump's television lawyer. Speaking to CNN's Chris Cuomo, he had this to say:

I never said there was no collusion between the campaign, or people in the campaign. I said the President of the United States. There is not a single bit of evidence the President of the United States committed the only crime you can commit here, conspiring with the Russians to hack the DNC.

This brings to mind the line from the latest Star Wars film that we are fond of quoting: "Amazing. Every word of what you just said was wrong." To wit:

  1. Giuliani has repeatedly claimed there was no collusion by anyone working for the Trump campaign. For example, in May 2018, when he told CNN "[T]here was no evidence of collusion with Russia. End of case." Or one month later, when he reiterated the exact same sentiment to Fox News, and also famously opined that it doesn't matter anyhow, because "collusion is not a crime."

  2. There certainly is evidence that Trump colluded with the Russians. Whether it is enough evidence to impeach him is a different matter, but even if we're not at that point, "not enough evidence to impeach" is very different from "no evidence."

  3. "Conspiring with the Russians to hack the DNC" is far from the only crime that Trump could have committed here. Agreeing to receive information from Natalia Veselnitskaya at the infamous Trump Tower meeting would have been a crime, and would have nothing to do with hacking the DNC. Similarly, instructing Paul Manafort to give polling data to Konstantin Kilimnik would also be a crime, and would also have nothing to do with hacking the DNC. And that is before we talk about crimes that are Russiagate-adjacent, like possible money laundering.

It is possible that Team Trump will spend all day today denying that Giuliani said what he said on Wednesday. If so, it would not be the first time that Rudy said something, and Trump quickly denied it. Nonetheless, as it currently stands, this is a tacit admission—undoubtedly in response to the revelations about Paul Manafort sharing polling data—that collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians is a possibility. And that alone is enough to justify special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation, while also putting to rest the claim that it is a "witch hunt."

Giuliani's newly-adopted position on collusion is consistent with reporting from Vanity Fair, which also says that he thinks the first segment of Mueller's report is coming soon, and that it will be "horrific" for Trump. The same story reveals that Giuliani is tiring of his current role, with intimates noting that "Trump is very hard to deal with." That's hardly a revelation, but it does suggest that Wednesday's remarks could be the beginning of the end for Giuliani's business relationship with the President. (Z)

Money Isn't Everything

While money is important in politics, it isn't everything. In fact, some of the Democratic House candidates who raised the most money in 2018 lost their elections. Some examples:

  • Andrew Janz raised $9.2 million but lost to Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA)
  • Randy Bryce raised $8.6 million but lost to Rep. Bryan Steil (R-WI) in Paul Ryan's old district
  • Amy McGrath raised $8.6 million but lost to Rep. Andy Barr (R-KY)
  • Gina Ortiz Jones raised $6.2 million but lost to Rep. Will Hurd (R-TX)
  • M.J. Hegar raised $5.1 million but lost to Rep. John Carter (R-TX)

All of them are thinking about what to do next. Given their large mailing lists of small donors and the fact that the 2020 electorate will be more Democratic than the 2018 electorate, some of them might decide to give it another shot. (V)

Why the Shutdown Won't End Anytime Soon

This new Pew poll, which asked about support for Donald Trump's wall, shows in a glance why the government shutdown is not going to end soon:

Shutdown poll

Republican support for the wall is at 82%. Democratic support for the wall is at 6%. It is hard to reconcile these numbers. Any Republican, including Donald Trump, who caves on the wall will get mauled in 2020. Any Democrat who supports it will also get mauled.

The poll also showed that 63% of Republicans don't want to end the shutdown unless the wall is funded. However, 84% of Democrats oppose ending the shutdown by funding the wall. It is hard to see how the twain can possibly meet.

One possibility is that facts on the ground change some opinions. If, for example, a large number of TSA workers call in sick and decide to seek temporary employment in another part of the transportation sector (e.g., driving for Uber or Lyft), this could cause major disruption in air transportation. That might cause wealthy Republican donors to put pressure on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to pass the funding bills the House has sent him and then override the expected veto (on penalty of Kentuckians finding and funding a primary challenger in 2020). See, for example, this tweet from the Washington Post's Robert Costa:

Alternatively, the economy could go south and Trump could decide that preventing a recession is more important than building the wall. Or other things could happen to force a resolution. (V)

Majority of Americans Are Fine with a Marginal Tax Rate of 70%

When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had the temerity to suggest that the top marginal tax rate on very high incomes should be 70%, the right-wing media immediately began making false claims that she wanted to impose a flat 70% tax on everyone's income. That is certainly not what she said. She suggested that rate would only apply to income above, for example, $10 million. Interestingly enough, most Americans agree with her. A poll from The Hill/HarrisX, showed that 59% of registered voters are fine with 70% as the top marginal rate. Among women, 62% support the idea; among men it is 55%. Even among Republicans there is some support for it, with 45% approving.

A 70% marginal rate wouldn't be the highest in American history by any means. When the federal income tax was instituted by the Sixteenth Amendment in 1913, the top marginal rate was 68%. During World War II, it was 94% for a couple of years. More recently, during the administration of the conservative Republican Dwight Eisenhower, the top marginal rate varied from 90% to 92% for a couple with a joint income of $3.4 million in 2019 dollars. Despite that, the country flourished during Eisenhower's administration, demonstrating that a high marginal rate doesn't wreck the economy. In fact, it took Democrat John Kennedy to lower it to 70%—the same rate Ocasio-Cortez wants. The economy did fine during the Kennedy/Johnson administration, again showing that tax rates and the economy aren't correlated at all. Here is a graph showing the top rate over time:

Top tax rates

So basically, there is no economic argument against a 70% tax rate. It is a political decision, not an economic one, how much the very wealthy should pay. (V)

Thursday Q&A

We've had plenty of questions and answers about the train wreck that is U.S. politics right now. So, let's start today with some about the train wreck that is British politics right now.

I searched the Internet high and wide, reading every "Brexit 101" article to try to understand the consequences of a deal-less Brexit, and nobody really explains why, as you said, "[T]he UK could leave the EU with no plan in place at all, which would be pretty bad for the Brits." Why is it pretty bad for the Brits? What exactly would happen? Please explain! B.O., Malvern, PA

Ok, here goes. The most obvious, and most immediate, effect would be on Britain's trade with other European nations. At the moment, goods move freely between the UK and other EU members, without customs inspections or tariffs. The plan that was voted down earlier this week included a successor trade deal that Prime Minister Theresa May had negotiated with EU leadership, and that would have maintained many of those privileges.

If no successor agreement is in place when the Brexit happens, then the UK will have to play by WTO rules when it trades with other European nations (including Ireland). That means paying the same tariffs as other non-EU nations, sometimes stiff ones as high as 35-40%, as well as at least two customs inspections for each shipment. Those inspections might seem a minor aggravation compared to a sizable tariff, but they are actually quite significant. The UK doesn't currently have the infrastructure needed to support mass inspections, and so shipping times could increase by 2-3 days for most commodities. That will substantially increase the labor costs for each shipment (after all, truck drivers, etc. still have to be paid while they sit and wait), while it will also increase the rate of spoilage for commodities that have a limited shelf life.

These things, in turn, will hit Britons in their pocketbooks in predictable ways. The highest tariffs would be on agricultural products, which would also face the most difficult and costly inspections. For most farmers, it would effectively be impossible to sell outside the UK, and for all farmers, their bottom lines will take a big hit. Meanwhile, the prices for goods in British stores will spike, perhaps as much as 50%, as the UK economy is quite dependent on imported goods. Dairy products are going to be especially dicey, as many of those come from outside the country, and they will be particularly prone to the spoilage issue mentioned above.

Needless to say, none of this will be good for the overall health of the British economy. Even a smooth Brexit was going to create some waves, but a Brexit with no alternative plan in place will be far worse. Her Majesty's Exchequer took a stab at projecting the impact of a deal-less Brexit, and came up with inflation of nearly 3%, a 15% weaker pound, and more than 800,000 additional unemployed Britons within two years.

Beyond the economic impact, there will also be millions of folks whose legal status becomes an open question. Right now, there are about 3 million EU citizens living in the UK, and about 1.2 million Britons living in EU countries. If no deal is in place when the UK leaves the EU, then those 4 million-plus individuals would technically become illegal aliens. Exactly what would happen next is anyone's guess, but EU leadership has helpfully warned these individuals that their status is "uncertain."

Then there are the political effects in the UK. As with the economy, the Brexit was going to create a certain amount of political turmoil, even if it went smoothly. Recent events, however, have plunged Parliament into chaos. May survived Wednesday's "no confidence" vote by a narrow margin (325-302), but she's still vulnerable to challenges from the left and the right. Another vote is unlikely, but if May can't come up with a Plan B, and the British economy hits the skids as a result, she may have enormous difficulty trying to govern, and may be under enormous pressure to resign.

This isn't a comprehensive list, but it does cover some of the biggest and most noticeable effects of a deal-less Brexit.

You recently explained that the British Parliament voted 432-202 against May's Brexit plan. You explained that the nay votes were a combination of those who thought it was too weak, those who thought it was too strong, and those who thought Brexit itself was wrong. I read lots of U.S. news and I thought ALL nay votes were those opposed to Brexit itself. So my question is two parts: (1) What are your favorite non-U.S. news sources (so I can start reading those to get a better worldwide perspective), and (2) What do Britons themselves feel about Brexit, and are their opinions reflected accurately (proportionally) in the British Parliament? R.M., Oak Harbor, VA

To start, the Brexit vote was definitely as complicated as we said. For example, 118 members of Theresa May's own Conservative Party voted against their leader's Brexit deal. Even among those folks, some said it was because they wanted a harder Brexit, others a softer Brexit, and a sizable number said they wanted no Brexit at all. This divide reflects public opinion on the issue. There have been literally hundreds of polls, and all of them are listed in the Wikipedia article on the subject. The general trend, at the moment, is that respondents prefer to remain in the EU by about a 10 point margin (45-35), but there are 15% who are undecided, or who want some other option. So, if there's a second referendum, there's no certainty of a result different from that of the first referendum.

As to non-U.S. news sources, we like The Economist (subscription required), the Financial Times, Al Jazeera, the BBC, the South China Morning Post, the Times of India, the Guardian (UK), the Times (UK), the Independent (UK), the Globe and Mail (Canada), the Sydney Morning Herald, Haaretz (Israel), Le Monde English edition (France), and L'Osservatore Romano English edition (Vatican). While many of these are less-than-perfect, of course, they are generally the best available English-language outlets depending on what one wants to know about (i.e., the South China Morning Post for news about the Far East, the Financial Times or The Economist for financial analysis, etc.).

If it turns out that there are a number of qualified and popular Democratic presidential candidates for the 2020 election, is it at all conceivable that they might run as a team together and promise to govern as a team? That might have a number of advantages over a single person being President. It would require a Constitutional change, I assume. D.K., Iowa City, IA

If the Democrats were to pursue this as a formal arrangement, it would indeed require vast changes to the Constitution. First of all, the procedure for electing a president allows electoral votes to be cast only for an individual, not a team, so that would have to change. Then, the duties of the presidency would have to be divvied up, and in a clear fashion. There would need to be one clear-cut Commander-in-Chief with the ability to launch nukes, and one person with the ability to sign bills into law, and so forth.

Maybe this would be better. After all, many other countries divide executive functions among multiple people. Maybe it would be worse. However, we are confident it is never going to happen, for at least two reasons. The first is that, as we have pointed out many times, the American system is set up to resist change. American culture is also suspicious of change. And so, wholesale rewriting of the Constitution is a non-starter.

The other reason it would not work is, for lack of a better word, ego. Anyone who rises that high in the political hierarchy has long ago convinced themselves that they are the bee's knees. In the past 50 years or so, there have been a number of cases where presidents and/or presidential candidates toyed around with informal kinds of power-sharing arrangements. In 1980, for example, there was talk of Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford running as "co-presidents," with Ronnie being the actual president and handling domestic affairs, and Jerry being the nearly-equal vice president and handling foreign affairs. That fell apart very quickly, as Reagan and Ford couldn't quite figure out how to divvy things up. Bill Clinton/Al Gore and George W. Bush/Dick Cheney also shared power, and in both cases, the arrangement eventually fell apart because the president got tired of the veep stepping on his toes. It's true that Barack Obama and Joe Biden made it work pretty well, but generally speaking, we just would not expect three or four or five ambitious Democrats (or three or four or five ambitious Republicans) to figure out how to work as an executive team. Every single one of them thinks they should be the top dog, and that all the others should be playing second (or third, or fourth) fiddle.

Do you pronounce "gerrymander" with a hard "g" like goat or a soft "g" like gentle? Most people (and dictionaries) use a soft "g." My husband insists it should be pronounced with a hard "g" because the word is a combination of Gerry and salamander, and Gerry is pronounced with a hard "g." Gerry was the first politician accused of drawing a district to favor his party. What pronunciation do you use? M.S., Des Moines, IA

This is very reminiscent of the debate in computing circles over the term GIF. Some argue that it should be a hard 'g,' like 'gift,' and others say it should be a soft 'g,' like 'giraffe.' That debate has its own website, and has inspired endless flame wars on reddit and Usenet.

Anyhow, we definitely pronounce 'gerrymander' with a soft 'g.' The reason we do so is because that is the common usage. This alone is a pretty definitive answer; languages are living, breathing, organic entities, and if the speakers of a language settle universally (or near-universally) on a particular pronunciation, or a particular meaning, or a particular idiom, then that is a strong argument for that pronunciation/meaning/idiom as the correct one.

That said, your husband does have at least part of a leg to stand on. Gerry did pronounce his name with a hard 'g,' and the term is derived from his name, so maybe it should have a hard 'g.' His descendants have been on a mini-crusade of sorts in support of that position, saying that they are tired of people mispronouncing their name.

To resolve this as best we can, we will turn to the field of linguistics. The general rule, in English, is that speakers use a hard 'g' before a back vowel (go, garden, gum), and a soft 'g' before a front vowel (geography, giant, ginger, general). That is why English speakers gravitate toward the common pronunciation of 'gerrymander,' because the 'e' is a front vowel. The exception to the soft/hard-vowel rule, however, is words of Germanic origin (gift, get, gild, give). The name 'Gerry' is Germanic, having evolved from the Germanic name 'Gerrens.' So, old Elbridge was right to pronounce his name in that way. However, 'gerrymander' is not of Germanic origin, it was coined by English-speaking Americans. So, we conclude that it should indeed have a soft 'g,' consistent with other non-Germanic g-front vowel words.

Paul Manafort sharing the Trump campaign's polling data with Konstantin Kilimnik certainly reflected his poor judgment. But why was this particular polling data so valuable, when so many other polls were publicly available? Most of the big polling houses publish crosstabs and very detailed demographics with their polls—I know this because you often link to them and encourage readers to check them out. Was it because the Trump campaign's polling was especially thorough, or detailed? T.K., Vashon Island, WA

There are two major differences between the polls you see on this site and in other media outlets, and the polls that political campaigns conduct. The first is that polling is expensive, and no matter how wealthy or powerful a media outlet is, it will have its limits. Even the New York Times isn't going to go beyond five figures to figure out how people are feeling about Donald Trump this week. For political campaigns, by contrast, the sky is the limit. A presidential campaign spends more money on polling in a good month than the Times spends in 10 years.

The second difference is that media polls are meant to gauge what people are thinking and feeling in the moment. Campaign polls are also interested in what people are thinking and feeling in the moment, but they are even more interested in determining future action. For example, the Times (or Gallup, or Ann Selzer, or Quinnipiac) would never ask a question like, "Would you like to see the President talk more about the evils of immigration?" However, a campaign pollster might ask a dozen (or more) questions just like that. Campaigns also conduct focus groups where they test out various ideas and phrases and policies. Swiftboating, "climate change" as opposed to "global warming," and about half of Bill Clinton's 1992 playbook came out of focus groups, among other examples.

As a result of these things, political campaigns and parties have fine-grained information about voters that is almost completely absent from the polls you see. The GOP might know, for example, that if you want to get Herman M. at 1313 Mockingbird Lane to the polls, you better talk about how the Democrats are going to take away his guns. Or the Democrats might know, for example, that Asian voters in Southern California are particularly concerned about gang violence in their communities this year, and want to know if anyone is going to do something about it.

Obviously, the Russians can surf to our site, or RealClearPolitics, or FiveThirtyEight, or any other polling aggregator to get public opinion-type polls. But the only way they could get the sort of highly-precise information they wanted for their propaganda campaign was to get it from the presidential campaigns (or the parties).

Are government shutdowns (partial or total) of the sort we are currently experiencing a uniquely American phenomenon, or do other countries occasionally experience them as well? D.K., Stony Brook, NY

While there are a few scattered cases of shutdowns here and there (say, in Northern Ireland, which hasn't had a government for two years, and was shut down for part of that), they largely don't happen in other countries, for a couple of reasons.

The first reason is the structure of other nations' governments. Some nations, of course, are absolutist, and so there's no risk of disputes between parties subsuming the government. In China, for example, Xi Jinping and his ministers set the budget for the year, and then that's that.

Then there are the democracies, but most of them are parliamentary. The parliamentary system works against shutdowns like the one the U.S. is experiencing in a couple of ways. To start, if the majority cannot agree on a budget, it means that the government itself has failed, and probably needs to resign or be dissolved. Beyond that, however, the chief executive in a parliamentary system is also the leader of the majority party. So, there's no risk (in most cases) that the legislature passes a budget and then the prime minister refuses to sign it. If the United States was operating under the British system, for example, then once Nancy Pelosi and the House Democrats had settled on a budget, that would pretty much be it. The Senate (as the equivalent of the House of Lords) could sit on the bill for a month (at most), but then they would be compelled to send it to Donald Trump (as the equivalent of the monarch) who would legally be required to give royal assent.

The other reason that most governments don't have shutdowns is that they have built an insurance policy into their laws, just in case. In most EU nations, for example, if there is no budget at the start of a fiscal year for any reason, then the previous year's budget carries over. Some countries (e.g., Germany) also specifically guarantee that government employees will always get paid, regardless of what is happening politically.

In Monday's Q&A, you said, "Almost everyone born to an American citizen parent outside the U.S. proper is a citizen at birth." I'm under the impression that there is no restriction. Any child born to a U.S. citizen is a natural-born citizen. Why the "almost"? K.J., Atlanta, GA

Because the Constitution is a bit vague on what "natural-born citizen" means, this is much trickier than it seems. There is no question that someone is a U.S. citizen if they are born in the United States. However, if a person is born abroad, then other factors start to come into play. Among them:

  • Was the birth in wedlock or outside of it?
  • Were one or both of their parents naturalized?
  • Was one of their parents a non-citizen?
  • How long were the parent(s) from whom citizenship derives living abroad?
  • Where, exactly, was the child born?
  • What were the circumstances of the birth?

The precise manner in which these rules have been interpreted and applied has varied over time. For much of the 19th century, for example, being born abroad was pretty close to an automatic disqualifier, regardless of one's parents' status. Until the 1930s, the gender of the parents mattered; only a male citizen could pass U.S. citizenship on to children born abroad. Today, it is up to the Justice Dept. to make the final call in cases where a person's citizenship status is in doubt.

Just as an example, the State Dept. has a Web page giving its view on the citizenship status of a child born abroad to at least one American parent (but again, it is the Justice Dept., not the State Dept., that gets to make the final call). For a birth in wedlock where one parent is a U.S. citizen and the other is not, the baby is an American only if the citizen parent physically resided in the U.S. or one of its territories for 5 years prior to the birth and 2 of those years must have been after the age of 14. So if mom was born in, say, Delaware, but moved to Canada at age 9, her children would not be Americans. However, if she moved to Canada at age 17, the kids would be Americans. Prior to Nov. 13, 1986, the residency requirements were different. And if you really want to get into the weeds, think about what happens if four people are involved in the birth: the egg donor, the sperm donor, the gestational mother, and the person married to the gestational mother, all with potentially different citizenship statuses. It can get pretty hairy. That's why we said "almost."

The birther question you received regarding Kamala Harris reminded me of a question I've got about Barack Obama: If he had been born in Kenya, based on what you've written about Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), wouldn't Obama have been natural-born anyway, and still eligible to be President, due to his mother's citizenship? D.C., San Francisco

The answer is "almost certainly," but as you can see from the previous answer, it's not 100% certain. Let's start with Cruz, whose claim on natural-born citizenship is much more tenuous than Obama's. We have been on this issue since August 2013. When the Senator was born in Canada, his mother was a natural-born U.S. citizen, while his father was a Cuban citizen (who later became a naturalized U.S. citizen). When this was a topic of discussion in 2016, the general consensus was that U.S. residency was the key, specifically that Cruz' mother would need to prove that she had lived in the United States for some portion of her childhood (some said 5 years, others said 10). That said, "the general consensus" is not the same as the Supreme Court making a ruling based on the relevant statutes. One can imagine the justices saying: "Mrs. Cruz, do you happen to have any rent receipts or phone bills from the period before you moved to Canada so we can establish whether you met the residency requirements so we can determine if little Rafael was a natural-born citizen?

Obama gained citizenship by being born in Hawaii. If he had not been born in Hawaii, he would still likely have gained citizenship through his mother. The only plausible way that could not be the case is if his mother had lived in Kenya (or some other foreign country) for many years prior to Obama's birth. There is no indication she did so, especially since that would have made it very difficult for her to earn three different degrees from two different U.S. universities. Still, although the law is complicated, it is also unambiguous, so the case would come down to whether all the residency requirements were met.

If you have a question about politics, civics, history, etc. you would like us to answer, click here for submission instructions and previous Q & A's. If you spot any typos or other errors on the site that we should fix, please let us know at

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
Jan16 Barr Walks a Fine Line
Jan16 A Day of Shutdown Theater from Trump
Jan16 Mueller Filing Confirms Kilimnik Connection
Jan16 Gillibrand Makes It Official
Jan16 Gabbard Has Anti-LGBTQ Skeletons in Her Closet
Jan16 House Vaguely Rebukes King
Jan16 Brexit, May Both in Trouble
Jan15 Polling Continues to Be Grim for Trump
Jan15 Engineering 101: Why a Wall Is a Bad Idea
Jan15 GoFundMe Campaign for Wall Falls Apart
Jan15 Congressional Republicans Strip King of Committee Assignments; Some Demand His Resignation
Jan15 Abrams Exploring Senate Bid
Jan15 TV Ads No Longer a Priority for Priorities USA
Jan14 Americans Blame Trump for the Government Shutdown
Jan14 Barr's Confirmation Hearing Will Be All about Mueller
Jan14 Why Manafort's Polling Data is a Big Deal
Jan14 The Don and Vlad Show, Part I: Trump Hid What He Said to Putin from U.S. Officials
Jan14 The Don and Vlad Show, Part II: FBI Suspected Trump Might Be Working For Russians
Jan14 Giuliani Thinks Mueller's Report Will Be Horrific, But Has a Plan
Jan14 10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1...Liftoff
Jan14 Monday Q&A
Jan11 Shutdown, Day 19: Much Theater, Little Progress
Jan11 Trump Campaign Had Over 100 Contacts with Russians
Jan11 Cohen to Testify Before Congress
Jan11 White House Thrilled by Ruth Bader Ginsburg's Health Problems
Jan11 Steve King Can't Figure out When "White Supremacist" Became Offensive
Jan11 Crowded Presidential Field Could Imperil Democrats' Chances at Retaking the Senate
Jan11 Democratic Presidential Candidate of the Week: Kirsten Gillibrand
Jan10 Trump Storms Out of Meeting with Democrats
Jan10 House Democrats Use Health Care to Pressure Republicans
Jan10 White House Wants to Expand Trump's Tariff Powers
Jan10 Barr Met with Senators Yesterday
Jan10 Rosenstein Plans to Leave the Justice Dept. after Barr is Confirmed
Jan10 Romney Gets a Chilly Reception in the Senate
Jan10 Steyer Will Not Run in 2020
Jan10 Thursday Q&A
Jan09 Smoke, Meet Gun
Jan09 Trump Gives Border Speech He Didn't Want to Deliver
Jan09 Takeaways from Tuesday's Speeches
Jan09 Other Shutdown News
Jan09 Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss
Jan08 Shutdown Day 17: Things Are About to Go from Bad to Worse
Jan08 Can Trump Really Declare a National Emergency?
Jan08 How Much Is $5 Billion, Really?
Jan08 Trump Administration May Try to Suppress Parts of Mueller Report
Jan08 Ruth Bader Ginsburg to Miss Oral Arguments for the First Time
Jan08 How Re-electable Is Donald Trump Right Now?
Jan07 Trump Offers an Alternative to a Concrete Wall: A Steel Wall
Jan07 Trump in No Hurry to Name Permanent Cabinet Members
Jan07 Schiff Is Not Interested in Impeaching Trump