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During the interview that Joe Biden conducted this week with ABC News' George Stephanopoulos, the President was asked if he thinks that Russian president Vladimir Putin is "a killer." "Mhmm. I do," was the answer. When asked yesterday if the administration stood by that assessment, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said it does.
Now, this is hardly a revelation. Putin was a KGB operative for multiple decades and there are few organizations in the world that are more comfortable or more skilled with eliminating their enemies (maybe the Mafia, or some of the drug cartels). These days, Putin (presumably) doesn't do the killing himself, but people that he considers to be enemies pretty much have the life expectancy of a narc at a biker rally. Folks like Anastasia Baburova, Boris Berezovsky, Natalia Estemirova, Paul Klebnikov, Sergei Magnitsky, Alexander Litvinenko, Boris Nemtsov, and Anna Politkovskaya could confirm that if, you know, they hadn't died under mysterious and generally violent circumstances.
Still, the Russian President does not like people to point out the blood that is all over his hands. And so, after the Biden interview, he wished his American counterpart "good health," which is Putinese for "hope you like the flavor of polonium tea." Of course, the SVR (successor of the KGB) can't actually get to a U.S. president, and certainly not to his food or his tea, so this is just an empty threat. Knowing that, Putin returned to the airwaves later to slam his relationship with the Biden administration as "very bad," to recall the Russian ambassador to the U.S., and to challenge the President to a televised debate.
Putin knows his history, presumably, and his debate invitation brings to mind the famous Kitchen Debate between Nikita Khrushchev and then-VP Richard Nixon on July 24, 1959. It is highly improbable that Biden will be goaded into a sequel; there's little upside for him and plenty of downside. Further, the original Kitchen Debate wasn't actually a formal debate; it was basically a series of impromptu arguments that took place as the two world leaders toured the American National Exhibition at Sokolniki Park in Moscow. If VP Kamala Harris were to be really interested, then maybe the White House might go for it, but Putin—as Russia's #1—would never agree to the indignity of being worthy only of America's #2.
Anyhow, the main lesson here is that there's definitely a new sheriff in town when it comes to the United States' relationship with Russia. In the short term, it may seem that relations have taken a turn for the worse, though Putin is a strongman who is ultimately more likely to yield to being challenged as opposed to being glad-handed by a pushover. As a reminder, here is a list of meaningful concessions the U.S. extracted from Russia between January 20, 2017 and January 20, 2021:
This despite the fact that Russia aided Syria in its war against its own citizenry, mucked around in the 2016 election, continues to occupy part of Ukraine, tossed a bunch of American diplomats out of the country, and otherwise was a less-than-ideal international citizen during that time.
In other words, things couldn't get too much worse, and just maybe they'll get better. That said, Putin is now extra motivated to try to screw around with the 2024 election. On the other hand, the Biden administration is now extra aware of that, and the FBI, et al., will be watching like a hawk. (Z)
When Joe Biden was running for office, he pledged to oversee the administration of 100 million COVID-19 vaccine doses in his first 100 days in office. That seemed ambitious, but the administration has hit the mark with 42 days to spare. Today, day 58 of the Biden presidency, it is expected that arm number 100 million (of the Biden presidency; 115 million overall) will be poked. As chance would have it, (Z) gets his first dose today, so maybe he will be recipient of dose number 100 million. If so, hopefully there's a prize.
The administration made it to this point by buying up doses left, right, and sideways from anywhere it could. It secured considerably more doses than the United States actually needs, so now a small portion of the excess is being given to America's neighbors to the north and the south. It's only 4 million doses so far, but undoubtedly it will be more in upcoming weeks and months.
With this good news, however, there remain causes for concern, which Dr. Anthony Fauci usually gets the grim duty of pointing out. To wit:
- As more vaccines are administered, people are going to get more careless.
- As spring/summer (outdoor weather) arrives, people are going to get more careless.
- Until children are able to be vaccinated, herd immunity will likely not be achieved.
- There could be new variants that are resistant to the vaccine.
Still, the White House is happy with the progress that has been made so far, a position that seems very well justified. (Z)
Slowly but surely, Joe Biden's cabinet and cabinet-level appointees are being confirmed by the Senate. Xavier Becerra was approved as HHS Secretary on Thursday by a razor-thin margin, 50-49, with all 49 Democrats and independents voting for him along with Susan Collins, and Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) still away from Washington on personal business. He'll get to wrestle with all the tricky COVID-19-related challenges that lie ahead, including getting not-so-willing people vaccinated, setting up vaccine passports or other proof of vaccination, and distributing billions in relief funds with as little inefficiency and corruption as he can manage. Further, now that he's officially vacating his post as California AG, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-CA) will have another chit he can use as he tries to rally Democratic voters to his cause and stave off removal from office.
Meanwhile, it's not a cabinet-level post anymore, but we'll also mention that William Burns was confirmed yesterday to lead the CIA. He's clearly qualified, and the vote was a unanimous voice vote. The only reason it took as long as it has to get him approved is that Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) had put a hold on the nomination, ostensibly to pressure the Biden administration to come out against the controversial Russia-to-Germany Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. Cruz has not become a born-again environmentalist; he just doesn't like competition for Texas' oil producers. But he's backed down now.
There remains only one cabinet post (Labor) and two cabinet-level posts (OMB Director, Office of Science and Technology Policy Director) left to fill, which means the next big wave of news on the appointments front will come when Biden announces his first group of appointees to the various ambassadorial posts around the world. Reportedly, a list of major postings is finalized (or will be very soon), and announcements will come within the week. There are going to be, at very least, four interesting storylines here:
- Political Appointees vs. Pros?: People who steer a lot of money toward a political party or
politician, or who lend critical support of other sorts, are often in line for a nice ambassadorial posting. It's
relatively light work (since the career staff does most things), it's something of an adventure, and someone who doesn't
have much experience can't do too much harm. On the other hand, a president generally doesn't want to overdo it,
particularly when it comes to countries with whom the United States' relationship is fraught with tension. Pretty much
anyone can be the ambassador to the Bahamas or Jamaica or even to France or the U.K. However, you generally want a pro
running the embassy in Russia, Saudi Arabia, or Turkey. Barack Obama awarded 30% of his ambassadorships to political
appointees and 70% to State Department careerists. For the last two Republican administrations, it was closer to 50/50.
Biden is expected to have a ratio similar to Obama's, perhaps weighted just a bit more heavily in favor of the
careerists. The White House has already been warning big-time donors not to get their hopes up.
- Who gets China?: Of all the fraught postings, surely none is more so than China. The U.S.
has all kinds of issues to work through with that nation, and the Biden administration hasn't given too many clues as to
its thinking. The pick there should be instructive.
- Republican Appointees?: Biden promised to put at least one Republican in his cabinet, and
he hasn't done it. He's expected to try to rectify that, to the extent he can, with some ambassadorial appointments.
Among the Republicans whose names have been floated are former senator Jeff Flake and widow-of-John Cindy McCain.
- Paging Mr. Feinstein?: Richard Blum, the husband of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), has made it known that he is interested in an ambassadorial posting. He's a big-time Democratic donor, and not a careerist, so he would be in the 30% or so who would be political appointments. Appointing him to some far-flung post, like Japan or South Korea, could give the Senator an excuse to resign her job with dignity (so she could follow him abroad), as opposed to being compelled to publicly declare that she's not up to the job anymore. Democrats would be thrilled to see that happen, since she's somewhat out of step with the Party these days, and because they really want a Black woman to take her place.
Anyhow, as we said, the President is making his list and checking it twice. We'll see when he decides to share it (it is interesting to note that this White House rarely, if ever, suffers from leaks). (Z)
The folks who become U.S. senators undoubtedly have many talents that have allowed them to reach their high station in life. However, creativity tends not to be among them. Back in 2005, the members of the Senate were bickering over the use of the filibuster (it was a very different time, obviously). In response, a group of 14 (mostly moderate) members from both sides of the aisle worked together to help the upper chamber navigate the crisis. That was long enough ago that Robert Byrd and Joe Lieberman were still in the Senate and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) was still regarded as a moderate.
Anyhow, this group of senators called themselves the "Gang of 14," a term that has its origins in...oddly enough...a group of Chinese communist revolutionaries known as the "Gang of Four." And since then, when a bipartisan group of senators tries to join together to help break an impasse, they usually call themselves the Gang of [X]. That includes the Gang of 6 (health care, 2009), the other Gang of 6 (national debt, 2011), the other other Gang of 6 (immigration, 2018), the Gang of 8 (immigration, 2013), and the Gang of 10 (energy policy, 2008).
It is our view that, at the moment (and frankly, in general), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is misplaying (or overplaying) his hand. He's managed to help lead his party to a place where it has lost control of both chambers of the Congress, and of the White House. He's opposed a COVID-19 relief bill that has a staggering approval rate of 70% or more with the American public. The only tricks he seems to have up his sleeve are bluster and obstructionism. And he's giving Senate Democrats lots and lots of cover for modifying the filibuster so they can get something done.
It would seem we are not the only ones who feel this way, because there is a new Senate gang in town. This one is a Gang of 20, so you know it's serious. And, as per usual, it's heavy on moderates and centrists. The 10 Democratic and independent members are Dick Durbin (IL), Maggie Hassan (NH), John Hickenlooper (CO), Mark Kelly (AZ), Angus King (ME), Joe Manchin (WV), Jeanne Shaheen (NH), Kyrsten Sinema (AZ), Jon Tester (MT) and Mark Warner (VA). The 10 Republican members are Bill Cassidy (LA), Susan Collins (ME), Shelley Moore Capito (WV), Jerry Moran (KS), Lisa Murkowski (AK), Rob Portman (OH), Mitt Romney (UT), Mike Rounds (SD), Thom Tillis (NC), and Todd Young (IN).
The exact purpose of the newest Senate gang is a little less defined than with previous iterations. Broadly, the 20 senators want to prove that the upper chamber can still function (which would implicitly demonstrate that killing the filibuster may not be necessary). More specifically, they want to work on things that should have bipartisan support, like immigration reform, an infrastructure bill, and an increase in the minimum wage. The Gang of 20 is going to be tested very soon, as there is an ongoing crisis at the border, and the House has just passed two bills on that general subject. The first would give the Dreamers a path to citizenship and the second would ease the entry of farm laborers into the country and would give those folks a path to citizenship as well.
There is some reason to believe that the Gang could have success. Republicans have supported immigration reform in the past (as we pointed out earlier this week, the last major amnesty for undocumented immigrants was signed into law by Ronald Reagan). And the Dreamer bill attracted nine Republican votes when it was passed this week (though the farm labor bill didn't get any). Past gangs, as you can see from the list above, have had some success with immigration legislation. Further, the U.S. has a president right now who really wants to be seen as a unifier, while the Senate has a Republican caucus where some members fear they are about to get steamrolled if they don't start playing ball. It's not a coincidence that the Gang of 20 happens to include just enough Republicans to invoke cloture, assuming all the Democrats and independents stick together.
On the other hand, not all gangs work out so well (the Gang of 10 was a notable failure) and the modern Senate is awfully polarized. Further, there are some legislative bridges that the Senate Republican conference surely won't cross, most obviously H.R. 1, which is the Democrats' highest priority. So, even if the Gang of 20 has some short-term efficacy (no guarantee), it's hard to believe the fun will last for long. (Z)
Historians, particularly those in genocide studies, know that when a nation commits a truly atrocious crime, there are basically three possible responses afterward:
- Contrition: This is fairly rare, but it does happen. One notable example is the Holocaust;
once World War II ended and the Nazi leadership was sent to prison/the gallows (or fled to South America), the German
what had happened, formally apologized, paid out billions in reparations, and did things like outlaw Holocaust
denial and the display of Nazi symbols. It's not enough, and never can be, of course, but it's better than the alternatives.
- "It Happened, But We're Not Responsible": An example here is what happened in Bangladesh in 1971.
The Pakistani government concedes that many Bangladeshis were killed, but
that the region where this took place was not yet under Pakistani control at the time.
- "It Never Happened": The infamous example here, which we've mentioned previously, is the Armenian Genocide. More than a century later, it remains the official position of the Turkish government that there was no Armenian Genocide.
We bring this up because a similar pattern is playing out when it comes to congressional Republicans who gave overt, or tacit, support to the insurrection on Jan. 6. Obviously, that event was nowhere near as bad as a genocide, but it's nonetheless a dark day in American history, and has quickly become an inconvenient thing for a politician to have on their résumé.
There is no insurrectionist-supporting Republican member of Congress who has expressed actual contrition for their part in the fiasco, nor is there likely to be. However, there are some members who are now claiming, despite evidence to the contrary, that they had nothing to do with it. Leading the way here is House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), who angrily insisted on Thursday that he had absolutely nothing to do with efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential result. He seems to have "forgotten" the fact that he was a signatory to the Texas lawsuit that demanded that then-VP Mike Pence overturn the election results, and that he (McCarthy) also voted to overturn the election results in two different states (Arizona and Pennsylvania) on Jan. 6.
Meanwhile, there remains a group of Republican members of Congress who insists that there was no insurrection. That list—surprise, surprise!—includes such upstanding citizens as Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), Louie Gohmert (R-TX), and Andy Biggs (R-AZ). On Wednesday, Congress voted to award Congressional Gold Medals to the police officers who protected the members (and very possibly saved their lives) during the insurrection. Those four members, plus another eight of their Republican colleagues, voted "nay," reasoning that there was no insurrection, and thus no need for protection, and thus no heroism worth recognizing. Undoubtedly the family of officer Brian Sicknick will be interested to learn that the insurrection did not happen.
In American history, there have been cases where members of Congress were punished en masse by voters for anti-democratic behavior like this. The Federalists after the War of 1812, for example, or the Democrats after the Civil War, or, more recently, the members of the Keating Five not named John McCain. However, there are considerably more examples where such behavior was tolerated. To return to the list above, when was the last time Pakistan paid any price for their crimes in 1971, or Turkey for theirs in the 1910s? In U.S. history, how many members were punished for supporting Joe McCarthy, or for opposing the civil rights legislation of the 1960s? The Minority Leader and, in particular, the insurrection deniers come from very red districts. And so, they are likely going to get away with their reality-bending behavior. (Z)
Members of Congress, particularly if they come from deep red (or deep blue) districts, can get away with a great deal of dishonesty and unethical behavior. That is not true for every profession, however, particularly those professions whose members are subject to some sort of governing authority. And so, while the Kevin McCarthys and Matt Gaetzes of the world are likely to avoid consequences for their election-overturning behavior (unless they are charged by the FBI with directly aiding the Capitol insurrectionists), the lawyers involved may not be so lucky.
The problem here is that the Bar frowns on lawyers bringing frivolous lawsuits, particularly those based on claims that counsel knows to be untrue. The offense becomes worse when there are many, many such lawsuits instead of just one. And so, Michigan AG Dana Nessel (D), Michigan secretary of state Jocelyn Benson (D), and Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer (D) have filed motions in federal court asking for sanctions against the four attorneys—Greg Rohl, Scott Hagerstrom, Stefanie Junttila, and Sidney Powell—who led the charge in trying to overturn the election results in that state. The three Michigan officials, all of them licensed attorneys who presumably know what they are talking about, have also filed complaints with the State Bar of Texas (Powell) and with the Attorney Grievance Commission of the State of Michigan (Rohl, Hagerstrom, and Junttila) requesting disbarment.
These lawyers are pretty badly exposed, and are in serious danger of losing their bar cards (and that's before we talk about civil suits from Dominion Voting Systems and others). And Michigan will likely not be the only state that travels this particular road. Pennsylvania AG Josh Shapiro (who might like to become Gov. Josh Shapiro) was asked about this news and said he likes what he's seeing, while implying that he is likely to put together his own requests for sanctions and disbarment. Keep in mind also that the fellow who led the overturn-the-results charge in Pennsylvania was one Rudolph W. "Rudy" Giuliani. So things could get very interesting indeed in the Keystone State. (Z)
Do you happen to have $10 million to burn? It would seem that the newly formed super PAC Real Recovery Now! does. The PAC, an alliance of labor and progressive organizations, announced that it is planning to drop eight figures on advertising designed to: (1) sell the American public on the COVID-19 relief bill, and (2) encourage the Biden administration to keep it up and go for an infrastructure bill next.
Obviously, those millions belong to Real Recovery Now!, and they can spend them as they wish, though we struggle to see how they are going to get all that much bang for the buck. As we've already noted, the COVID-19 bill has the approval of more than 70% of the public, and to the extent that is going to rise, the freebie appearances that Team Biden makes on TV, and the benefits that people get once the money starts flowing, should do the job. It's hard to see how a few commercials are going to help in a meaningful way. As to infrastructure, that is the one remaining Democratic priority that might be achieved with bipartisan cooperation, and, if that falls through, can be achieved through reconciliation. Of course the Democrats are going to move forward with it. Not so with H.R. 1, or immigration reform, or increasing the minimum wage, all of which have a much tougher row to hoe.
In any event, Real Recovery Now! may be spending money in a somewhat inefficient fashion, but their campaign speaks to the fact that the Democrats remain organized and well-funded, which certainly bodes well for the Party heading into next year's midterms. (Z)
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---The Votemaster and Zenger
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