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Takeaways from the State of the Union Speech

Many media outlets have now written takeaway lists about Joe Biden's first State of the Union address. Here is a summary of some of them:

Vox PBS NPR New York Times Washington Post The Guardian CNN ABC News NBC News The Hill Fox News

Most of these takeaways were predictable. Biden's approach to Ukraine is reasonably popular, as is his waving goodbye to COVID-19. At least he understands that for many people, inflation is the biggest problem right now. His pivot to the center will depress progressives, but apparently he thinks there are more votes to be won there in November than on the left.

Somewhat surprising is Fox News' take. Remember, Fox News does have an actual news operation that is (supposed to be) separate from the opinion part of the network. But for some reason, Fox's takeaways have almost nothing to do with Biden's speech. But a simple check of the byline explains it all. It was written by David Bossie, who probably didn't have time to watch the speech, so he just wrote down his general opinion of Biden. If Fox wants its news operation to have any credibility at all outside its bubble, it is going to have to leave the news side to the journalists and keep Bossie far away.

Breitbart went a step further than Fox News and ran a story headlined "State of the Union Fail" that was mostly about a poll of SOTU viewers and their views on crime and inflation. There was barely any mention of the speech itself. (Z & V)

Kim Reynolds Replies to Biden

The Republicans chose Gov. Kim Reynolds (R-IA) to give the reply to Joe Biden's SOTU speech. She was an accidental governor, being promoted from Lt. governor in 2017 when then-governor Terry Branstad was appointed ambassador to China. She was elected to a full term in 2018. She is a grandmother with 11 grandchildren and hails from St. Charles, IA, a town of 640 people. That should make her a "real American" in the eyes of the Republican base.

Reynolds used most of her time to attack Joe Biden on a laundry list of domestic and foreign policy issues. She said he spent the last year either ignoring the main domestic issues or making them worse and on foreign policy he is weak. She highlighted inflation as a major issue he has ignored, even though he talked about it a lot in his speech. She also said that as a mom and grandmother, she is concerned about what children learn in school. While she didn't specifically mention Critical Race Theory, there is no doubt Republicans are going to make education a big issue in November. They are not going to talk about whether Johnny can read or count, but only how the schools are indoctrinating Johnny to feel guilty about being white. And only if Republicans are elected up and down the ballot can this horror be stopped. You can count on it.

Her attacks on Biden were to be expected given her track record as governor, including:

Reynolds is also a big fan of Donald Trump, although she eventually conceded that Biden won the election. In other words, she is your standard garden-variety grandmother.

Is she auditioning for a better job than governor of Iowa—say, Vice President of the United States? Could be. Gov. Kristi Noem (R-SD) gets a lot of attention as a possible veep, but if the 2024 Republican presidential nominee wants a woman who is a little less strident than Noem and is from the Midwest rather than from the Great Plains, Reynolds could be the one. She didn't flub her response, which shows she is capable of reading a speech from the teleprompter without messing up. She's someone to keep an eye on.

That said, one small cloud on the horizon for Reynolds is her misuse of $450,000 in federal coronavirus relief funds. She used the money to pay her staff, which is not allowed. And she did her best to try to hide it from the auditors, but they found it anyway and want it back. Though if Donald Trump hears about this, he'll probably say it was "genius" of her to take federal money and use it they way she wanted, ignoring federal law in the process. (V)

Biden Will Expand the Sanctions to Target More Russian Oligarchs

The initial rounds of sanctions for the Russian attack on Ukraine mostly went after Russian banks and other companies and were designed to put pressure on the Russian economy. However, Joe Biden has apparently come to realize that having 140 million Russians cold and hungry won't move Vladimir Putin one millimeter since he doesn't give a hoot about the Russian people. He does care about the oligarchs who surround him, however, and who could conceivably set a coup in motion. So now Biden is going after them.

The administration is now working on a list of names to sanction. It is expected to overlap somewhat with a similar list the European Union is working on. For example, one person who will be sanctioned is Alisher Usmanov, an iron-and-steel oligarch worth $15 billion. He is also on the E.U..'s list.

However, the U.S. list will be broader than the E.U. list since it will also cover the children and families of the oligarchs to prevent them from escaping by putting their fortunes in the name of family members. Biden is also planning to sanction their companies and make it hard for them to do business. Biden also plans to seize their yachts, their private jets, and their luxury apartments. Good luck with the yachts and jets, which are probably already gone, but moving apartments and houses is a lot tougher. To do this, the Dept. of Justice has created "Task Force KleptoCapture," which will be run by prosecutors in the SDNY office.

Russian billionares control about 30% of their country's wealth, compared to 15% that American billionaires control in the U.S. According to one study, the Russian oligarchs have as much in assets stashed abroad as the entire Russian population has in Russia. Putin is dependent on some of them since they have provided financing for either Putin personally or his projects abroad. Having them turn on him on account of the sanctions would be huge. But pulling this off won't be easy and runs the risk of tying the oligarchs even closer to Putin.

Also, catching the oligarchs won't be so easy. Many of them have set up companies in countries with tight security laws and have these companies buy real estate and other assets. SDNY will have its work cut out trying to figure out which anonymous purchases are from Russian oligarchs and which are from generic American oligarchs. Still, if you don't try, you won't catch anything and if SDNY accidentally comes across some illegal deals done by Americans, that isn't a total waste of effort.

Some senators want to make KleptoCapture's job a little easier. Senate Finance Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) wants to change disclosure rules among private equity firms, hedge funds, and venture capital funds to provide more transparency, although it is not known how much Russian money they hold. In January 2021, Congress passed a law putting an end to some anonymous shell companies by requiring them to disclose their true owners to the federal government. However, Treasury Dept. regulations needed to implement this law have not yet been formulated., in part because the unit responsible for doing so needs a large funding boost which Congress has held up. (V)

Over 100 Countries Voted to Condemn Russia's Invasion of Ukraine

One area where Joe Biden has been working vigorously has been to unify the world against Russia. He has been having some success. Yesterday an emergency session of the United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly in support of a motion deploring Russia's attack on Ukraine. A total of 141 countries voted to condemn Russia and only five voted to support Russia: Russia itself, Belarus, North Korea, Syria, and Eritrea. Thirty-five countries abstained from voting. Here is how the vote went:

UNGA vote on Russia by country; it's a map
and most of the abstainers are in eastern or southern Africa, the Middle East, or east Asia. The biggest abstainers are China, India, and Iran.

This is the first emergency session of the General Assembly in 40 years. General Assembly votes don't carry any sanctions, so they are not terribly important other than in some symbolic sense of showing who stands with whom. After some hesitation, Israel voted to condemn Russia, even as it is working with Russia to kick the Iranians out of Syria. China and India didn't vote. Although Vladimir Putin thinks of China as his new best friend, China apparently doesn't see it like that at all and understands that its commercial ties with America and Europe are also important, so it abstained. It will also not take part in sanctioning Russia. India, which has long-standing military ties with Russia, also abstained. Africa was split, with some countries voting to condemn Russia and some abstaining.

Before the vote, Ukraine's ambassador to the U.N., Sergiy Kyslytsya, gave an impassioned speech in which he said that not only did Russia send in troops to kill Ukrainians, but it wants to deprive Ukraine of its very right to exist. Russia's ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, argued that Western nations were exerting undue pressure on members to vote for the resolution. He also noted that no matter how the vote went, Russia would continue its operations in Ukraine. (V)

Jan. 6 Committee Believes Trump Engaged in a Criminal Conspiracy

In order to provide some legal cover for asking Congress not to certify the electoral votes on Jan. 6, 2021, Donald Trump's lawyer, John Eastman, wrote some memos on the subject. The Select Committee investigating the attempted coup wants to see those memos and wants to know what contact he had with Trump on the subject, so it sent him a subpoena. He responded by suing the Committee claiming attorney-client privilege. Smart lawyer!

But maybe not smart enough. There is one exception to the rule that attorney-client discussions are privileged, namely if the attorney and client were conspiring to commit a crime. The Committee has responded to Eastman's lawsuit by asserting that Eastman and Trump were engaging in a criminal conspiracy to defaud the United States, so documents relating to that conspiracy are not privileged. They didn't just say this at a press conference, they put it in a 221-page filing with the U.S. District Court in the Central District of California, where the case is being heard. The filing contained this sentence: "The Select Committee also has a good-faith basis for concluding that the President and members of his Campaign engaged in a criminal conspiracy to defraud the United States."

This is the first time the Committee has suggested that Trump committed a crime. It is not the Committee's job to determine whether any crimes were committed on Jan. 6, just to collect the facts and issue a report. Ultimately it will be AG Merrick Garland's job to decide if any crimes were committed then and if so, who to prosecute, if anyone. But Eastman effectively forced the Committee to go public with this accusation in order to block his claim to attorney-client privilege. The charge might be in the final report, but now it is out there in a public court filing for all to see. This new development can't make Trump sleep better at night. (V)

Manchin Might Just Be Willing to Write a Bill He Can Support

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) has been pushed out of the spotlight by Joe Biden's SOTU speech and the war in Ukraine, and so is fighting back. After Biden's speech he made it clear he was not interested in reviving Build Back Better. His interest is still on containing inflation and he said: "I've never found out that you can lower costs by spending more." Of course if a spending bill raises taxes by more than needed to cover the spending, it will reduce net demand and thus help curtail inflation, but he didn't address that.

Yesterday afternoon, Manchin finally put his cards on the table. He outlined a package that would enact some new social programs, lower the deficit, and win his vote—provided the package was adequately and permanently funded. Smoke and mirrors and accounting gimmicks won't do the job here. However, he is all gung-ho to reverse much of the Republicans' 2017 Tax Cut Act and levy higher taxes on corporations and the rich, so the funding side shouldn't be a problem, at least with him.

Some of what he wants in the bill is a direct result of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. In particular, he wants to ban oil imports from Russia and ramp up domestic energy production, including—you guessed it—coal production. But he is not against investments in clean energy, like a network of charging stations for electric cars. After all, those cars can run on electricity produced by coal-fired plants. Some Democrats are going to have a lot of trouble swallowing large lumps of coal as the price for getting a bill, but as Manchin said last year, if progressives want more progressive policies, they should elect more progressives.

Manchin didn't specify which social programs he supports, but in the past he has supported universal pre-kindergarten, as well as having Medicare cover dental procedures and be allowed to negotiate with drug companies over prices.

Manchin said that although he prefers bipartisan solutions, he has come to the conclusion that changing the tax code permanently to make corporations and the rich pay their far share has to be done with only Democratic votes. The West Virginian is a bit of an odd duck in Congress now. He is strongly against eliminating fossil fuels but he is also strongly in favor of taxing the rich as a matter of principle. There aren't a lot of other senators to whom that description applies.

Before Manchin actually instructs his staff to draft a bill, he is going to have some heavy negotiations with Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) who is the opposite of Manchin. She is for most social spending, but she is against taxing the rich. The Democrats can't have it both ways but they need both votes since no Republican is going to join them. On the other hand, if Manchin wrote a bill and it went for an up-or-down vote on the Senate floor and she was the only Democrat who voted no and thus killed it, that would be the end of her Senate career. Without Manchin, she has no cover.

Progressives are already steaming. They know that Manchin's bill will enact only a small fraction of their wish list, although higher taxes on the rich is an important item for them so they should actually be aiming their fire at Sinema. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) indicated her frustration by saying: "I would hope he would reconsider, and realize how many people are being left behind." Good luck trying to change Manchin's mind. Other progressives are willing to take whatever they can get. They are not in the driver's seat and know it. (V)

Republicans Hit Back at Trump

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has been around the track enough times to know that it is a sin to waste a good crisis. The war in Ukraine is a crisis and it provides an opportunity to take Donald Trump down a peg or two, so the Senator is not wasting it. Trump has called Vladimir Putin "smart" and "savvy." McConnell countered that by calling Putin a "ruthless thug." Specifically, when asked about Trump's comments about Putin, McConnell said: "What President Putin did as a ruthless thug is just invade—invaded another sovereign country and killed thousands of innocent people." That's a fairly direct hit on Trump, even if McConnell didn't call him out by name.

"Thug" is apparently the Word of Week. When a reporter asked Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-SD) about Trump's characterizing Putin's grabbing part of Ukraine by military force as "genius," Thune said: "Putin is a murderous thug and I think the world is now seeing that." Thune also said that the invasion will strengthen NATO.

Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS), who generally avoids controversy, went on the Senate floor and said: "Vladimir Putin is a thug and is solely responsible for the invasion of Ukraine. Putin, I condemn him, and he's even being condemned by his own people in Russia and by a growing alliance around the world."

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) said statements defending Putin are "almost treasonous." Then he added: "It just makes me ill to see some of these people do that." Note the use of "some of these people" here. Romney's spine is still missing in action somewhere. He could have been more specific, of course, but he wasn't.

Speaking of invertebrates in the Senate, even Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Trump-boot-licker-in-chief, is ever-so-gently chiding Trump. When asking about Trump's remark about Putin being a genius, Graham managed to say: "I think that was a mistake. I think I know what he was trying to say, you know, going into the Donbas. But, no. Let's just make it clear, Putin's not a genius, he's a war criminal." Again here, note the wording. This is more like "mistakes were made" than a direct statement of "Trump is wrong." And it is more about Putin than about Trump.

And not all Republicans are dumping on Trump. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who is busy courting Trump voters for his own possible 2024 run, was having none of it. He exonerated Trump: "I think the corporate media is desperate to drive a narrative. By any measure, Trump's policies were much, much tougher on Russia than Biden's policies." Could lead to an interesting bumper sticker if Cruz gets the nomination: "Cruz says corporations are bad." (V)

Republicans Ask SCOTUS to Block State Courts from Rejecting Congressional Maps

Lower courts have blocked Republican gerrymanders in North Carolina and Pennsylvania and are threatening to do it elsewhere. Republicans don't like having their carefully gerrymandered maps being thrown in the garbage, so they have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to tell the state courts that they can't do this. Their hope is that with a 6-3 conservative majority, they can get 5 or 6 justices to ignore state laws and state Constitutions and just go for the result they want.

Their legal argument is that the U.S. Constitution gives the state legislatures the power to draw the maps and the courts have nothing to say about them. It is a weak argument because the Supreme Court has upheld parts of the Voting Rights Act and that says the states cannot chop up majority-minority districts to deprive the people living there of their own choice of a representative. If the legislature does that anyway, normally the courts get to tell the legislature that it has broken the law. The new lawsuit wants to take that power away from the courts.

If the Supreme Court agrees with the lawsuit, there will inevitably be other challenges about voter ID, mail-in ballots, and drop boxes, especially when a legislature has done something that violates state law or the state Constitution and people affected want the courts to slap down the legislature. The Republicans are hoping for a quick ruling because upcoming primaries in some states depend on where the district boundaries are. (V)

New York City Will Allow Noncitizens to Vote in City Elections

New York City is about to embark on a giant experiment. Starting in 2023, green card holders and other noncitizens who are legally allowed to work in the U.S. will be allowed to vote in municipal elections, including those for city council and mayor. A few other cities allow noncitizens to vote in city elections, but none approaching the size of NYC. There are currently about 5 million registered voters in the city and this new law will add 800,000 potential voters to the rolls.

San Francisco allows noncitizens to vote—but only in school board elections. Eleven cities and towns in Maryland allow noncitizens to vote in local elections, largely because the state Constitution explictly allows munipalities to grant noncitizens the vote if the municipality wants that, The biggest town to allow this is Takoma Park, which has 13,000 registered voters, of whom a few hundred are not citizens. Federal law makes it a felony for a noncitizen to vote in a federal election, but whether noncitizens can vote in state or local elections is up to state and local law. The U.S. Constitution is silent on the matter, leaving it up to the state legislatures to determine who can vote in state and local elections.

Legal noncitizens who live in New York City will be allowed to register to vote starting in Dec. 2022. The first election in which they can vote will be the city council primary in June 2023. All seats will be on the ballot then. Mayor Eric Adams signed the law allowing noncitizens to vote but he will have to change his reelection strategy in 2025 to deal with the new electorate. The biggest group of noncitizens in NYC are Dominicans, who number about 400,000. People from China, Jamaica, Mexico, Guyana, Ecuador, and Bangladesh are next in numbers.

The preferences of the various groups are not the same, which could complicate campaigning. Since immigrants tend to cluster together in certain areas, the effects of the noncitizen vote are more likely to be felt in city council elections than in citywide elections. For example, Flushing, in Queens, has a large number of Chinese and Korean immigrants, and their votes could determine who wins the council seats for that area. There are many Dominicans in Inwood in Manhattan, Russians in Brighton Beach in Brooklyn, and other immigrant groups in other neighborhoods so their votes could affect the composition of the city council quiet a bit.

Some Black leaders are afraid that allowing noncitizens to vote could reduce the power of Black voters by adding more Latinos and Asians to the voting rolls. Republicans are also against the change, claiming it violates state law. The Board of Elections hasn't taken a clear stand on this yet.

The logistics of allowing noncitizens to vote will be messy, that is certain. There would need to be two kinds of ballots, one with only municipal elections and one with all elections. Will voters have to prove their citizenship and immigration status when they register to vote? The chances that mistakes are made are enormous, especially since many people will not understand that there are now two classes of voters. In the past it was much simpler: citizens could vote in every election and noncitizens could not vote in any election. Getting this right won't be easy and there are bound to be claims and lawsuits in state and federal elections that noncitizens voted. (V)

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