Donald Trump has let it be known that while Congress is holding a prayer service on Jan. 6, he will give a speech at Mar-a-Lago, once again claiming that he won the 2020 election and the Democrats stole it from him. About three-quarters of Republican voters believe that Trump won. Probably only a handful of Republicans in Congress believe that, but all the others except Reps. Liz Cheney (R-WY) and Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) are too scared to say it in public. Jason Shepherd, the former GOP chair in Cobb County, GA, summed it up by saying: "It's become almost a religion in the Republican Party. You have your believers, and you have your heretics, and anyone who isn't willing to follow Trump 100 percent, or wants to question Trump, that's now the new definition of a RINO." Ralph Reed, founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, said of Trump: "It's extraordinary. You could make the argument that he's in a stronger position within the Republican Party today than he perhaps ever has been."
There is quite a bit of evidence for that view. In March, 79% of Republicans said the Jan. 6 rioters should be prosecuted. By September, that was 57% and a majority of Republicans said that too much attention was paid to the riot. Now a recent Morning Consult poll shows that a majority of Republicans believe that congressional Democrats were more responsible for the events of Jan. 6 than was Trump. The House Select Committee investigating it is supported by 82% of Democrats but only 40% of Republicans.
That Committee is hard at work and may produce a final report describing how to ensure that the 2024 presidential election is conducted in accordance with the Constitution. However, there is a big problem: A future Congress could simply ignore it.
A key issue here is the Electoral Count Act. It is not even known if it is constitutional as it has never been tested in court. Specifically, can a state legislature just decide to ignore the popular vote in its state and pick its own slate of electors? If the governor has signed a certificate of ascertainment certifying the electors, can the legislature retract that certificate and choose its own electors? Congress has spent 134 years avoiding this issue but maybe now it has become unavoidable.
Experts disagree on whether Congress can even pass a law ordering future Congresses to follow certain procedures for accepting and counting the electoral votes. The matter could end up in the Supreme Court, which could be bitterly divided and lead to a serious constitutional crisis.
As practical matter, if Congress wanted to do so now, it could pass a law clarifying the ambiguities in the Electoral Count Act and in particular, the role of the state legislatures. If the same party controlled the White House and both chambers of Congress from Jan. 3 to Jan 6, 2025 or 2029 or 2033, it could quickly change the law, otherwise it would be bound by it. But it is extremely unlikely that the Republicans currently in Congress would agree to any change that ruled out the state legislatures overturning the popular vote or overturning the certificate of ascertainment. As a consequence, there could be a bitter dispute about the procedures to be followed and the powers of the state legislatures in 2025 or beyond. (V)
Continuing on the subject of the Select Committee, Bernard Kerik, the former NYC chief of police and a close ally of both Rudy Giuliani and Donald Trump, has delivered a large number of documents to the Committee. However, he also refused to deliver other documents the Committee wanted, claiming they are privileged. He cannot claim attorney-client privilege since he is not an attorney, but he is doing it anyway because attorneys were involved in preparing some of them.
One document that Kerik supplied included e-mails about who was going to pay for the "war room" at the Willard Hotel just before Jan. 6. It is abundantly clear already that the events of Jan. 6 were not a spontaneous citizen uprising. Figures close to Trump were deeply involved in it, and the war room at the Willard was an important part of it, so determining who was funding that is important. It may seem odd, but a hotel bill may ultimately send someone to prison.
Kerik did provide a list of documents that he did not deliver, including one entitled: "DRAFT LETTER FROM POTUS TO SEIZE EVIDENCE IN THE INTEREST OF NATIONAL SECURITY FOR THE 2020 ELECTIONS." Who wrote the letter, to whom it was addressed, and what is in it are no doubt things the Committee would like to know, but it may require a court order to force Kerik to turn it over.
One 22-page document that Kerik turned over is entitled: "STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS PLAN GIULIANI PRESIDENTIAL LEGAL DEFENSE TEAM." That document is now public and describes how the campaign was going to pressure members of Congress to reject the official vote totals in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. It is quite detailed and identifies leaders in those states who were to be pressured and describes how the pressure campaign was to work.
Kerik's lawyer, Timothy Parlatore, said that Kerik had volunteered for an interview with the Committee on Jan. 13, subject to some conditions but the Committee retracted its offer after receiving the conditions and demanded a deposition. Whether Kerik will testify and how remains unclear at this point.
It also remains to be seen how much new information is contained in the documents Kerik produced. He certainly wants to protect Giuliani (his former boss) and Trump and no doubt selected the documents to be turned over carefully. Nevertheless, there could be new leads for the Committee in the documents he did turn over. And the Committee could yet subpoena Kerik to produce the other documents and testify under oath. No doubt the chairman is considering that already. (V)
A new Washington Post/University of Maryland poll shows that 23% of Democrats and 40% of Republicans believe that violent action against the government is sometimes justified. The poll asked what would justify violence against the government. The top five reasons were: (1) the government takes away people's rights (22%), (2) the government is no longer a democracy (15%), (3) the government violates the Constitution (13%), (4) the government abuses its power (12%), and (5) the government is violent against its citizens (11%). The problem with all of these is that the call is completely subjective. Is making people get a vaccine against a disease that has already killed over 800,000 Americans taking away people's rights or abusing its power? The experts differ on this. So do the non-experts.
Post reporters also talked to some people about the subject of political violence. Anthea Ward, a 32-year-old Republican mother of two in Michigan, who is worried about Joe Biden forcing her to get vaccinated, said: "It's no longer a war against Democrats and Republicans. It's a war between good and evil." Rob Redding, a 45-year-old independent in New York, said he didn't believe in breaking laws unless the "laws are unjust." Taylor Akins, a 29-year-old Democrat in Georgia, said it was perfectly justifiable to take up arms against the government when it oppresses people. None of those remarks sound much like "no."
Many respondents, especially Republicans, said that the government's response to COVID-19 in terms of masking and vaccinations, formed the basis of their view. Acceptance of violence against the government was higher among men, younger adults, and people with college degrees. Also, it was much higher among white respondents than among Black respondents. (V)
It is no secret that a lot of progressives, including those in Congress, are very disappointed with Joe Biden. They had dreams of a $6-trillion reconciliation bill. Then it became $3 trillion. Then $1.5 trillion, but still with all their wishes, just funded for a year or two. Maybe in the end it will be $1.5 trillion and fund three or four programs for 10 years. Maybe there will be no bill at all, although we think in the end Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) will write a bill he likes and it will pass. Now, $1.5 trillion is a massive amount of money. Imagine a suitcase with $1 million in it, then imagine a million suitcases and you've got only two-thirds of $1.5 trillion. If Joe Biden had originally promised a bill with $500 billion for universal pre-kindergarten, $500 billion for fighting climate change, and $500 billion for health care and got it passed in March, he would have been a hero. Progressives would have loved him. But the sausage making, which kept requiring progressives to accept less and less each time, has gotten to them. Even if Biden gets a bill passed that is sort of like the one just described, they will be unhappy. Process matters. Expectations matter.
So, the question naturally arises: If Biden runs in 2024, will he face a challenger from the left? In 1980, a weak Jimmy Carter faced a primary challenge from the left, initially both Ted Kennedy and Jerry Brown. Brown dropped out in April, but Kennedy and Carter faced off in 34 primaries. Could that happen to Biden?
Progressives face a dilemma here. If they find and fund a major challenger and a weakened Biden wins the primary but loses to Donald Trump or Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) in November 2024, in the following 4 years there will be a lot of recriminations, not to mention policy choices, that they are not going to like. If the progressive wins the primary, can he or she beat the Republican in the face of angry moderate Democrats who might just stay home in November? There aren't a lot of examples of progressive Democrats knocking off a moderate incumbent and triumphing statewide, much less nationwide. It occasionally happens in a D+29 House district where the moderate incumbent was way beyond his "use by" date (think: the first primary victory of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY) but statewide, very rarely.
Further, you can't beat somebody with nobody. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has already demonstrated that he can't beat Biden in a primary. He already tried. He couldn't even beat Hillary Clinton, and she wasn't an incumbent and was not all that popular. AOC will just have turned 35 a few weeks before the election, and if she wants to be taken seriously for the big chair, let her first knock off Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) in 2022 to demonstrate her political might. Some even less well-known member of the squad? Suppose Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) runs and gets 15% of the primary vote. How's a crushing defeat going to work for progressives in 2028? Are they going to brag: "Look we got 15% last time; maybe we can get 20% this time"? Pete Buttigieg might make a run of it and lose not too badly, but he is a team player and knows that he is young and can wait until 2028 or 2032 or beyond, especially if he can serve 8 years in the cabinet to get some more experience and TV time. Maybe he can then find a nice House district to run in after his time in the cabinet is up.
It is very unlikely that any sitting Democrat would risk everything on a fool's errand. Remember that in 1980, Ted Kennedy was more popular than Carter and the last remaining Kennedy brother. Many people saw it as manifest destiny that there would be another Kennedy presidency. Furthermore, Ted had already served 18 years in the Senate. That alone made him a serious candidate, even if he had been "Ted Smith." There is no Ted Kennedy waiting in the wings to challenge Biden.
Speculation has mostly been about somebody with nothing to lose challenging Biden. The names that come up are Bernie Sanders' campaign co-chair, Nina Turner, and 2020 presidential candidate Marianne Williamson. Turner has the guts to try, but she ran for a House seat in D+32 district in a special election and lost the primary to a moderate Democrat. Losing in a D+32 district's Democratic primary is not a promising omen for beating an incumbent president nationally. If Williamson runs, Biden could just ignore her and pretend there were no primaries at all.
Of course, stuff changes. If Biden's job approval is 35% in 2023 and he still wants to run, some serious Democrat might decide that for the good of the Party, a different candidate is needed. However, if Biden declines to run for whatever reason, there are several progressives, such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), who might try to grab the brass ring. (V)
Will Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) have the same impact in 2022 that she had in 2021? Twitter is working on making that less likely. Yesterday, the social media platform permanently suspended her personal Twitter account due to numerous violations of its misinformation policy. In particular, she has regularly posted lies about COVID-19 and vaccinations and finally Twitter had enough of it. However, her congressional account is still active. Of course, if she starts using that to post lies about COVID-19 and vaccinations, that is likely to get suspended as well.
Greene was warned before. In July, her account was temporarily suspended for claiming that for most people, COVID-19 was not dangerous. Then in August it was suspended when she claimed that vaccines don't work. It was also suspended on two other occasions. Five strikes and you are out.
This is her response to the suspension: "Twitter is an enemy to America and can't handle the truth. That's fine, I'll show America we don't need them and it's time to defeat our enemies." It is worth noting that calling the media the enemy of the country is what fascists have always done.
Nevertheless, the idea that a private media company gets to decide who gets to speak in public, as it were, and who doesn't, is somewhat scary. This case is fairly straightforward, but if she had been a little bit more careful in her wording, it would have been a tougher call. Suppose she had said: "Dr. X, a respected expert on infectious diseases, says that the COVID-19 vaccine doesn't work, so don't get it." It is easy enough to find a doctor who said that. Should Greene be suspended for quoting some quack? Who decides who's a quack? Fortunately for Twitter, Greene doesn't do subtlety, so it was easy this time, but maybe not next time. (V)
Not all the new congressional maps are done, but there are already five instances where the new maps put two incumbents in the same district. You might be thinking: "Those awful gerrymanderers. They are getting rid of a member from the other party by putting two members of the opposing party in the same district." Actually, that is true in only one of the five cases. Here are the five:
Mapmaking is not entirely finished yet, and even where it has finished, the sitting members of the House have not always revealed their intentions, so there could be a couple more incumbent vs. incumbent races. (V)
Early January is high season for predictions. We have been running items on predictions, including our own. Here is another batch from some media outlets, from left to right, with an emphasis on political and politics-adjacent (e.g., the economy) predictions:
So there you have it. Bookmark this page and check back in a year. Actually, we'll do it for you (especially if our predictions turned out better than these). (V)
Donald Trump got some good news and some bad news on Jan. 1. The good news is that Manhattan D.A. Cyrus Vance Jr., who has been pursuing him with a fervor that would make Inspector Javert blanch, has retired and no longer poses a threat. The bad news is that his replacement, Alvin Bragg Jr., a Democrat like Vance, knows that if he can brag that he bagged Trump, that could be his ticket to becoming New York attorney general when Letitia James moves on. In an interview with CNN, Bragg said that he will personally focus on investigating Trump's business practices. Bragg was sworn in on Saturday, along with other New York City officeholders.
In addition to Bragg's efforts, two senior prosecutors who have been working on the case, Carey Dunne and Mark Pomerantz, will continue, so as to provide continuity. Dunne was the prosecutor who won a Supreme Court case to get Trump's taxes for the D.A.'s office. There is a pretty good chance he has looked at them since then. Bragg also said that other prosecutors might be added to the team.
Whatever Bragg & Co. are cooking up, they are already in it up to their elbows. Prosecutors have already brought witnesses to the grand jury. They have also interviewed employees at Deutsche Bank, Trump's primary banker (since no other bank will touch him). The Trump Organization has already been charged with a 15-year tax-fraud scheme and CFO Allen Weisselberg has been indicted. Trump himself has not been indicted (yet).
Going after Trump isn't Bragg's only priority, though. He is the first Black D.A. in Manhattan and has a very different background than his predecessors, Vance and Robert Morgenthau, both of whom are sons of people who served in presidential administrations. Bragg grew up in Harlem and has had a gun pointed at him six times—three of them by police officers. He also graduated from Harvard and Harvard Law School. There is definitely a new sheriff in town. (V)
Two weeks ago, we had an item about turmoil in the FDIC. Basically, the Trump-appointed chair, Jelena McWilliams, was acting Trumpishly—ignoring the law and doing whatever she pleased, despite the vigorous opposition of the FDIC's board, which legally holds all the power. If you missed that item or have forgotten it, check it out for the background before continuing to read.
Now the power struggle has come to an end. McWilliams has resigned. While it was gracious of her to do that, she knew very well that Joe Biden has the power to fire her for any reason or no reason at all and Democrats were beseeching him to do precisely that. It is also possible that, directly or indirectly, Biden informed her that she had the choice of resigning or being canned. She has called the actions of the Democratic appointees on the board "a hostile takeover," but she hasn't let on why she is actually leaving.
The new chairman will be board member Martin Gruenberg, who has already served two terms as chair, so he won't need a lot of on-the-job training. McWilliams put a lot of effort into loosening the rules that govern how banks operate. Gruenberg wants to tighten them. He is certain to reverse many of the things McWilliams did. McWilliams' resignation also means that Biden gets to appoint another member to the board.
Gruenberg has a lot of things on his plate besides paying out money to depositors at banks that fail. He has to figure out what to do about regulating financial startups that are competing with traditional banks. He also has to decide whether and how cryptocurrencies should be regulated.
In addition, he wants to aggressively push banks to prepare for the risks caused by climate change. Those risks aren't sometime in the distant future. They are here right now. The New York Times has a long photo essay of the current effects of climate change and they are dramatic. Gruenberg wants the banks to prepare for the near certainty that some of the properties on which they have issued mortgages are going to be impacted (maybe even destroyed) by climate change and to create financial buffers so a disastrous storm or wildfire that destroys a huge amount of property doesn't take the banking system down along with it. The banks don't want this so the FDIC will have to force them to do this as a condition of getting that little "Insured by the FDIC" sign that they all want to put in their window.
Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA), chair of the House Banking Committee, wants to clarify the governance rules at the FDIC, in particular what the board can do by majority vote to force the chair to do something the chair does not want to do. (V)
All over the world, democracies are in trouble. In some places, such as Hungary and Turkey, they are pretty much gone. Why is this happening? Richard Pildes, a professor of law at NYU and an expert on the intersection of politics and law, wrote an interesting piece for The New York Times trying to make sense of it. His conclusion is that the root problem is the dispersion of power and the inability of democratic governments to deliver.
When President Xi Jinping of China announced that henceforth children under 18 would be allowed to play online games for only 3 hours a week and only on Friday evenings and weekends, there was no giant groundswell of parents who contradicted him and saying that they, the parents, and not the government, would determine what their children do. It will happen just as Xi ordered. In contrast, in the U.S., getting everybody to take a vaccine that will save their lives is impossible. In fact, anything more controversial than naming a post office is impossible.
Pildes' view is that so many people have a say in how democratic governments function that they are perpetually paralyzed. The Democrats have unified control of the federal government, yet they have been bickering among themselves for almost a year about whether to pass a bill whose elements are wildly popular. When political parties are incapable of delivering on their promises, even when they win, citizens become alienated, distrustful of government, and withdraw from public life. This also triggers a demand for authoritarian governments with a strong leader who will do what is needed, laws or no laws.
In the U.S., with its two-party system, the battles are within the parties. Currently it is Joe Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) against the rest of the Democrats, but if the Republicans capture the House in 2022, it will be the Freedom Caucus against the rest. Recent history does not suggest the Republicans will do well if they regain power. When they controlled the House from 2011 to 2019, the Party devoured two of its leaders, John Boehner and Paul Ryan.
In Europe, where parties are represented in the parliament in proportion to the votes they get, a party that gets 1% of the vote may well get a seat or two. This has led to splintering of the major parties and has made it very difficult to form stable coalitions that can get anything done. From 2015 to 2017, 30 new political parties entered European parliaments, most of them extreme left or extreme right and with little interest in compromising their principles for the sake of accomplishing something. In Germany, for example, the two biggest parties used to get 90% of the vote combined. Now it is less than 50% and it took 10 weeks to form a government this time, and 6 months back in 2017, the longest wait in the country's history (and see next item).
Coalitions formed with many parties, some of which were dragged kicking and screaming into the government because they were unable to get the others to agree to many of their demands, are very unstable. Spain held four elections between 2015 and 2019. Israel also held four elections in the past 3 years, and the only thing holding together the current government is that all of the parties hate Benjamin Netanyahu. That is not a principle for governing.
Large structural forces have driven the fragmentation. On the economic side, globalization is hurting many middle- and working-class people and they resent the government not doing anything to help them. On the cultural side, immigration is changing the national character in some countries, and a lot of people are asking who allowed these immigrants to come in. Immigration was one of the main reasons Brexit happened and one of the main reasons Donald Trump is still so popular with Republicans, even though he lost an election.
Another reason for the fragmentation is the loss of respect for authorities. In the past, people would vote the way their church or their union or some other group they respected suggested. That happens less now. Everybody is now an expert on politics, no matter how little they know, and votes accordingly.
As a result of these external forces, huge realignments are happening within the parties. Workers used to be represented by parties on the left, like the Democrats under Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Labor Party in the U.K. prior to Tony Blair. Affluent college-educated voters went with the conservative parties. Now, everybody is switching sides. The politicians are paralyzed and can't get anything done when they don't know who their voters will be next week. No wonder some people think autocracies are looking better every day.
Another factor is the rise of social media. Clever politicians who master it can become free agents. Did the RNC pull out all stops to give the nomination to Donald Trump in 2016? No, it did everything it could to block him, but he bypassed the party leaders. Does Marjorie Taylor Greene ask permission before saying something her party really doesn't like? No way. It is hard to form a functioning governing majority when so many politicians don't feel they have to listen to the leaders of their own party.
Pildes says that the political fragmentation in all Western democracies is paralyzing them and the leaders are going to have to figure out how to change things so they can deliver, or the problems will only get worse. If they can't figure that out, there will be more and more demand for autocratic figures, whether it is Trump in the U.S., Viktor Orbán in Hungary, or Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey. (V)
Here is a specific example of fragmentation in action. There was a parliamentary election in the Netherlands on March 17, 2021. A total of 89 parties filed to compete, but not all of them were on the ballot in all provinces due to their inability to pay the required filing fees. In the city of Amstelveen, just south of Amsterdam, 31 parties were on the ballot. Here is a city billboard showing all of the parties on the ballot. In other cities the set of parties might be different, despite it being a national election. (Note: the word "stem" means "vote" in Dutch.)
Since 1% of the vote will get a party a seat in the 150-member parliament, 17 parties managed to get one or more seats as shown here. Talk about fragmentation. After the results were in, multiple attempts were made to cobble together a coalition with at least 76 members. Our staff mathematician hasn't gotten over New Year's Eve yet, so we don't know how many theoretical combinations there are that get to 76 with 17 parties available in the parliament. Let's just say a whole bunch. Most of the attempts to put a coalition together failed because all of the parties want different things. If two parties wanted the same things, they could just merge and be one party.
Last night, 9½ months later, the government was completely formed and all the cabinet ministers announced. There are four parties in the government and together they have 77 seats. The previous government had 76 seats—and exactly the same four parties. Couldn't they have figured this out on March 18? In theory, yes. But as Yogi Berra allegedly pointed out: "In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice they are not."
Will all the voters be happy with the results? Absolutely not. Almost by definition, 73/150 (48.7%) of the electorate will not be happy, while much of the other 77/150 (51.3%) will also not be happy because so many compromises were made to put the puzzle together. That's why it took 9½ months. So people in the U.S. who say: "I don't like the two-party system. Neither of them represents me" should be warned: If starting a party is pretty easy, you can end up with 89 of them and find one that fits you perfectly. But then you don't find out who actually won for almost a year and you won't like all the compromises that were made, even if your party ends up in the government . (V)