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Biden and Putin Met and Nothing Happened

Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin met for 3 hours yesterday. They treated each other with respect and each said nice things about the other one afterwards. Nothing was accomplished.

Sometimes these summits break new ground when the leaders directly make a deal, without any staffers or bureaucrats around to say "You can't do that." This wasn't one of those. Biden told Putin to do better on human rights and stop meddling in U.S. affairs. Putin clearly has no intention of changing his behavior. The Russian President said that the talks were "constructive," which is diplomat-speak for "we didn't agree on anything."

In advance of the meeting, Biden had no illusions that Putin was going to be easy to talk into anything, but there were a couple of areas where he had hoped that maybe they could agree, including nuclear arms control, climate change, and renewing the Iran nuclear deal. Biden also said that neither side should launch a cyberwar on the other's critical infrastructure and should not host ransomware attacks on the other one. Putin didn't object, but also didn't agree to any kind of deal. In fact, he denied that Russia has been conducting a cyberwar on the U.S. for years. Some presidents might have bought his denial, but Biden is not among those.

The only actual accomplishment of the meeting was an agreement that the two countries should send their ambassadors back to work. They were withdrawn earlier due to tensions. That's kind of small potatoes. After the meeting, they held separate press conferences, in order to avoid giving the impression to anyone that they like each other.

The Washington Post kicked off the "takeaway stories" with these points:

  • Biden isn't Trump: Donald Trump, in contrast to all other Republicans, thought Putin was a jolly good fellow. His human rights violations weren't a problem at all. Nor was his meddling in U.S. elections or his cyberattacks on the U.S. Biden had a completely different tone. He called out Putin on numerous items and did not act like Putin was his new best friend.

  • Nobody is talking about a new Cold War: While it is clear that there is little about Putin that he approves of (and a lot that he doesn't approve of), Biden does not want a new Cold War with Russia. Putin doesn't want one with America either. Although this was not a kumbaya moment and the relationship will remain strained, a new Cold War does not seem likely right now.

  • Putin talked about Jan. 6 to deflect on human rights: Putin rebuffed Biden's attacks on Russia's human rights record by bringing up the Jan. 6 insurrection. He said: "As for who is killing whom or are throwing whom in jail, people came to the U.S. Congress with political demands. Over 400 people had criminal charges placed on them. They face prison sentences. They're being called domestic terrorists." In other words: "You arrest and imprison people whose politics you don't like, too, so stop calling me out for doing the same thing you do." Biden told Putin that if Alexey Navalny were to die in prison, the consequences for Russia would be disastrous. Putin noted that the Capitol police shot and killed Ashli Babbitt. People die everywhere. What's the big deal?

CNN also got its takeaways up there pretty fast. Here is a brief summary of them:

  • Biden thinks foreign policy is about man-to-man communication
  • Biden is nothing like Trump
  • Biden praised Putin to enhance diplomacy but whether he meant any of it is another story
  • Putin returned the compliment
  • Cyberwar is now a big issue

This is, of course, Foreign Policy's bread and butter, and they got right on top of the takeaways, too:

  • A radical departure from the Helsinki summit
  • No breakthroughs but potential for progress
  • Time will tell

The Hill also burned the midday oil and cranked out a list:

  • A return to pragmatism
  • Capitol riot rears its head
  • Biden praised as 'not Trump'
  • Putin relishes occasion
  • Questions linger about details

In short, we learned that Joe Biden is not Donald Trump, but that Vladimir Putin is still Vladimir Putin. Beyond that, there were no fireworks, but not a lot of problems were solved either. (V)

Manchin Is Open to a Mini-H.R. 1 Bill

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) has given Democrats hope that some kind of voting-rights bill can pass the Senate, just not H.R. 1. Behind the scenes, Democrats are working with him to craft a bill that he would support. Yesterday, he released a list of reforms that he likes. Some of the key items include:

  • Making Election Day a public holiday
  • Mandating at least 15 consecutive days of early voting in federal elections
  • Automatic voter registration through the DMV
  • Allowing states to require ID but including utility bills as valid ID
  • Disclosure of all donors giving more than $10,000 to political advocacy groups
  • Banning the use of computer models for partisan gerrymandering

The first five are straightforward. The last one is tricky to enforce because when some junior intern shows up at the map-drawing session with a completed map, who is to know who drew it and how? A key item not addressed here is absentee ballots and who can use them.

Still, even if all the Democrats get behind Manchin's proposal, unless he changes his mind and agrees to "reform" the filibuster, the proposal will not get a single Republican vote. On the other hand, if every Republican rejects "The Joe Manchin Voting Rights Act," that could annoy him and possibly cause him to rethink his opposition to doing something about the filibuster. (V)

Schumer Is Following Two Paths on Infrastructure at the Same Time

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has said that he hopes for a July vote on a bipartisan infrastructure bill. Of course this will be possible only if the Gang of 10 manages to actually produce a real bill. Vague language is not a bill. So far there is lots of vague talk but no actual bill that can be voted on, and if the five Democrats and five Republicans in the gang can't agree on actual wording, there will be no bill and no vote in July. The devil is always in the details, so putting the vague ideas into actual legislative language will be quite a challenge and could blow the plan up. Note that Schumer "hopes" there will be a vote in July. That is not the same as "expects" there will be a vote in July.

Schumer is a realist and understands that the gang may come up short, so yesterday he met with the 11 Democrats on the Senate Budget Committee, which is chaired by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), to discuss passing the 2022 budget resolution. Schumer noted that the budget resolution could contain most of Joe Biden's $2.3 trillion "American Jobs Plan" and also Biden's $1.8 trillion "American Families Plan." If the gang fails to come up with anything, the Democrats could pass the budget with just 51 votes. So Schumer is kind of betting on two horses at the same time.

This is probably a smart move on Schumer's part. Three Democratic senators are already on the record opposing the gang's bipartisan infrastructure plan. That means 13 Republicans would have to support it to break the filibuster. But any plan that can attract 13 Republicans would probably leave out so many Democratic priorities that even more Democratic senators would vote against it. So the most likely outcome is probably reconciliation, something Schumer well understands.

It should be noted, however, that the budget reconciliation process moves with the speed of a turtle (no, not that turtle). In July, the Senate Budget Committee would adopt a resolution, whose contents depend on whether the gang succeeds. This resolution merely gives the other committees their marching orders. Then they have to get to work. No matter what is in the resolution, House Budget Chairman John Yarmuth (D-KY) does not expect the actual budget bill to pass before the fall. He is proceeding on the assumption that the budget reconciliation process will be invoked and is working toward that goal. (V)

DSCC Will Spend $10 Million to Protect the Vote

Unless Joe Manchin changes his mind on the filibuster, the Senate is not likely to pass H.R. 1, which he opposes in its current form, or even H.R. 4, which he supports. Maybe his mini-voting rights bill (see above) can get 50 votes, but can it get 60? Knowing all this, the DSCC is working on a Plan B. After all, all the restrictive laws Republican-controlled states have passed have merely made it more difficult to vote, not impossible. Even if absentee ballots have been banned and early voting has been drastically cut, people can still vote in person on Election Day—if they know that is their only option. So the DSCC is going to spend $10 million on a program called "Defend the Vote." It has three parts:

  • Highlighting Republican voter-suppression efforts to rile up Democratic voters
  • Support lawsuits in key states
  • Fund voter-protection organizers on the ground

The third item is especially important in states where partisan poll watchers can roam freely around polling places. In a sense, it is a response to that. A big question though is whether $10 million is enough. Many studies have shown that ads don't move the needle much, so maybe the DSCC ought to spend more on the ground war than on the air war.

Gary Peters, chair of the DSCC this cycle, said the new program "will help ensure Democrats have the legal and battleground infrastructure we need to defend Americans' voting rights and win races across the country." While the DSCC is specifically focused on Senate races, informing voters about when and where they can vote and what they need to bring to the polling place also affects House, gubernatorial, and other races, of course.

One thing working for Peters is that although history favors the party not in the White House, the map favors the Democrats. Of the 34 Senate races, 14 are for seats held by Democrats and 20 are for seats held by Republicans. Two of the Republican-held seats (Pennsylvania and North Carolina) are open seats, which are always easier to capture than those held by an incumbent. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) hasn't said what he will do, but he might retire as well, putting a third Republican seat in a swing state in play.

The most endangered Democrats are Sens. Mark Kelly (AZ) and Raphael Warnock (GA). They won by small margins in newly purple states. A lot of their fate depends on whom the Republicans nominate to run against them, something that is not known yet. Beating an incumbent is always tough, and even tougher if the challenger is an unknown or an extremist. (V)

Mayors Have Had It

Pop quiz: What do Atlanta, Topeka, and Seattle have in common? Answer: In all three cases, the (female, Democratic) mayor is not running for reelection, even though she has a good chance of winning. Being a mayor in the time of COVID-19 is no fun at all, and quite a few mayors, including Keisha Lance Bottoms (Atlanta), Michelle De La Isla (Topeka), and Jenny Durkan (Seattle), are calling it quits and not running for reelection. Mayors are closer to the front lines than governors or the president and tend to get an earful from angry residents who don't like the decisions they have made or rules they are enforcing relating to masks, closures, and more. Many have gotten death threats and some have decided that being a public servant isn't worth it.

In addition to the hate, mayors are dealing with an impossible financial situation. The economic downturn has decimated budgets due to less income from sales, income, and some other taxes that cities depend on. Since cities can't run deficits, the mayors have been forced to make decisions like "shall we cut the schools or cut the police?" Any choice they make will anger a lot of people. Now mix in racial justice, or the lack thereof, with the associated protests and, in some places, riots, and there is no way for a mayor to win. Finally, in a number of states Democratic mayors are feuding with Republican governors who have adopted policies that are anathema to the mayors (e.g., no mask mandates).

In some cases, the mayors were battling Donald Trump, not part of the job description for a mayor. Durkan said that after Trump attacked her in a tweet, she received thousands of emails with sexist language and death threats. Someone painted "Guillotine Jenny" on her street. Is it surprising that she said she's had it with the job? (V)

Trump Is Struggling to Clear the Field in Senate Primaries

A key upcoming test of Donald Trump's power is his ability to clear the field in key Senate races. Trump's previous endorsement strategy has been to endorse candidates late in the game, after it was clear that they were going to win. After all, backing losers would make him look like a loser. But waiting until it is almost over, then jumping on the winner's bandwagon, hardly gives Trump any actual power to shape elections. If Republicans come to realize that his endorsement doesn't actually mean very much, then his power over them will be largely gone.

As the 2022 Senate races start to take shape, Trump is going to be forced to choose between his image and his actual power. If he waits until it's all over but the shoutin' to endorse candidates, he will have a great image but no power. If he endorses early, he may pick some losers, which will tarnish his image. That dilemma is becoming more acute by the day.

Ideally for Trump, when he endorses someone for a Senate race, for example, all the other Republicans who were interested in the job, quake in their boots and drop out, clearing the field for Trump's chosen candidate. But it's not happening. For example, Trump endorsed the very Trumpy Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) for the seat Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) is vacating. Nevertheless, the former CEO of the state's Business Council, Katie Boyd Britt, and former U.S. Ambassador to Slovenia, Lynda Blanchard, have entered the race, opposing Brooks. Now Brooks may well win (because he is extremely right-wing and thus a good fit for Alabama), but Trump's magical powers didn't dissuade Britt and Blanchard from running against Brooks. Furthermore, Shelby, who is well known and popular in Alabama, has strongly endorsed Britt. In other words, who's afraid of the big bad Trump?

Same in North Carolina. Trump endorsed Rep. Ted Budd (R-NC), but former governor Pat "Bathroom Bill" McCrory and former representative Mark Walker are continuing to run against Budd. No field clearing here. And McCrory is better known than Budd and certainly has a chance at winning the nomination.

In Alaska, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) is continuing to run for reelection, despite Trump's dis-endorsement of her. He hasn't picked a favorite yet, but even when he does, there is no way she will drop out on account of it.

Many of the candidates Trump doesn't favor have adopted the same strategy. They point out that they support him on the issues; it's just that they believe he lost the election. It's too early to see how well this strategy will work.

One person close to Trump who spoke to CNN on background said that Trump's inability to clear the field in Alabama, North Carolina, and elsewhere is a red flag. The source said: "He doesn't seem to have the other candidates running scared and that could become a serious issue later on." Trump's biggest weapon is his ability to make people fear him, and if that no longer works, his actual power will be greatly diminished. (V)

Dept. of Justice Will Focus on Domestic Terrorism

AG Merrick Garland has announced a new initiative to deter, detect, and prosecute domestic terrorists (that is, U.S. residents who would use violence to achieve political ends). After the 1995 Oklahoma bombing, then-AG Janet Reno set up a domestic terrorism executive committee. Garland is going to invigorate it now.

One problem, however, is that domestic terrorism itself is not a federal crime, as foreign terrorism is. The law against aiding foreign terrorists has been used to win long prison terms for people convicted of helping Al Qaeda or ISIS. Given that the most recent example of domestic terrorism (on Jan. 6) involved supporters of Donald Trump, getting a bill to outlaw domestic terrorism through the Senate seems unlikely at the moment. Of course, the actual acts of terrorism (like blowing up a government building in Oklahoma) are generally either federal or state crimes or both. And conspiracy to commit a crime is also a crime.

One group that would like domestic terrorism to be a federal crime is the FBI Agents Association, which represents 14,000 current and former FBI agents. The group lauded Joe Biden's push to counter domestic terrorism and welcomes his strategy.

However, the new strategy is silent on the issue of declaring domestic groups (e.g., the Proud Boys) to be a terrorist group. That would probably be a slippery slope. If some Republican politician were to advocate a coup, would that make the Republican Party a terrorist group? What about QAnon? The Trump Organization? It's a tricky question.

The best way to find out what domestic terrorists are up to is to snoop on everyone all the time. However, civil liberties groups are wildly against that and it would lack much public support anyway since most political speech is protected by the First Amendment. That said, the 2022 budget has more than $100 million in additional resources for the FBI, DHS, and DoJ to fund analysts, investigators, and prosecutors. The government will also work with tech companies to fight disinformation.

Biden has said that domestic terrorism is a greater threat to the country than foreign terrorism and will act accordingly.

Many Republicans have expressed alarm at the new program, saying that is intended to target conservatives and right-wing activists. Senior officials pointed out that the campaign will be agnostic with respect to political ideology. However, since the white supremacist movement is far more inclined to violence than left-wing groups like Black Lives Matter, there may be some grounds for Republicans' concerns. (V)

Biden Will Double Number of Black Women on Appeals Courts

There are 179 appellate judges in the United States. Exactly four are Black women. Joe Biden intends to double that number, and has already nominated four Black women to the appellate courts. One of them, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, has already been confirmed to the D.C. Circuit Court to fill the slot left vacant when Merrick Garland quit to take a new job. Three more will soon come up for confirmation. If all three are confirmed, that would be the largest number of female Black appellate judges in the country's history. Since the Democrats control the Senate and judges can't be filibustered, it is very likely that all three will be confirmed.

The U.S. has 13 circuits and 13 appellate courts. Eleven of these cover groups of states. One covers D.C. and one handles certain federal cases (patents, veterans, trade, etc.). So even if all of Biden's nominees are confirmed, a number of the circuits will not have a single Black woman in the panel.

In addition to doubling the number of Black women on the appellate courts, Biden has vowed to put a Black woman on the Supreme Court. Everyone in town is expecting that if Justice Stephen Breyer gets the memo and retires while Biden is still in office and the Democrats control the Senate, the nominee will be Jackson. Then Biden will probably pick another Black woman to replace her on the D.C. court. (V)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
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