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Saturday Q&A

They say the cream always rises to the top. That's not true of the Saturday Q&A and the Sunday mailbag, it would appear. For them, the Trump always rises to the top.

Current Events

J.D.M. in Cottonwood Shores, TX, asks: So, one of the documents found during the search of Mar-a-Lago could only be viewed by the President and the Secretary of Defense in a special room with no electronics after it is brought in from its special high security storage area by a special security officer... who then takes it back to its special high security storage area. How the hell does this document end up in a cardboard box?

Please feel free to speculate for me because I haven't even seen a good guess anywhere.

Bonus points for any explanation that does not trigger the Espionage Act!

V & Z answer: We could tell you, but then we'd have to kill you.

Just kidding, of course. We don't have much of an answer for you, because the Department of Justice has released so few details. However, we can point out a couple of things. The first is that Donald Trump has always played fast and loose with the rules, and has tacitly encouraged his underlings to do the same. He's also a genius when it comes to finding people who are corruptible, and then corrupting them. Consider all the folks whom we know to have committed, or likely committed, crimes on his behalf: Rudy Giuliani, Steve Bannon, Michael Cohen, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Roger Stone, Paul Manafort, etc. Is it really that hard to believe that he found one or more high-ranking careerists willing to bend or break the rules on his behalf? Actually, we already know Trump managed that trick. Michael Flynn was a person of very high rank and so too was Ronny Jackson, and they both placed their loyalty to Trump above the high office they spent a lifetime working toward.

The other thing we will point out is that it's not too easy to say "no" to the President of the United States, or someone acting on his behalf. And even if someone does have the fortitude to do that, the fact is that they all work for him. Even if "the rules" say the document has to stay in Location X, the president likely has the authority to override that.

Maybe, one day, we will get a clearer picture of what happened, if that is necessary to any future court cases, or if one or more accomplices is charged. On the other hand, we might never learn. At the moment, more detailed information could serve to clue America's enemies into what intelligence has been compromised, and they might use that to their advantage. Long-term, the DoJ, FBI, DoD are not going to be wildly interested in publicizing a clear weak link in the chain that might be exploited by future politicians on the take or future double agents.

D.G. in Los Angeles, CA, asks: Michael Cohen believes that TFG had stolen the classified documents to use as blackmail against the U.S. government (Get Out of Jail Free card), or to sell to the highest bidder. I think this is quite plausible. Do you agree?

If yes, the FBI went after Mar-a-lago and recovered plenty of seriously classified documents. TFG has several other prime locations where he could have squirreled away classified documents. Why do you think the FBI has not (yet?) gone with a search warrant after those places?

V & Z answer: We think it is very plausible that Trump still has classified documents hidden away somewhere, whether that be one of his other properties, or a bank's safe deposit box, or a confederate's business/residence, or somewhere at Mar-a-Lago that the feds missed. Don't forget that there were empty folders marked "classified," and it's not publicly known what was in them. Indeed, even the feds might not be fully aware of what was in them.

And the reason the FBI hasn't raided any other properties is that they're not allowed to go on fishing expeditions. They have to have compelling evidence that a forcible search is warranted—evidence that will convince a grand jury and a judge. In the case of Mar-a-Lago, there was apparently an insider who tipped the feds off as to the presence of classified documents. Thus far, there's been no equivalent revelation from, say, Bedminster or Trump Tower New York. If a canary at one of the other properties does sing, we'll all know about it pretty quickly, because time is of the essence when it comes to protecting classified information.

R.D. in Philadelphia, PA, asks: What do you know about the process of the selection of this "special master"? From the information I read, this person would need a very high special clearance to even view these documents let alone review them and determine if they are privileged. It seems there may only be a handful of people who may be qualified for this position and who knows if any of them would want to perform this process. Do you know of any people who are qualified? What happens if the DOJ and Trump can't agree on a "special master"? What happens if the judge can't find a qualified person? Do you think the "special master" is moot for the DOJ and they have already performed all the review and analysis they need of the documents? Thanks for any information you can provide.

V & Z answer: At the moment, the process outlined by Judge Aileen Cannon would indeed be onerous. Trump could drag his feet, and even if he doesn't, finding someone with the proper security clearance and the proper legal training would not be easy. Perhaps someone like Lt. Gen. Stuart W. Risch, who is the current Judge Advocate General of the U.S. Army. He certainly has the necessary legal expertise, and he probably has the necessary security clearances. (Someone else who would have both the correct expertise and the proper clearance? Barack Obama, though of course Trump wouldn't agree to that.)

All of this said, the recent DoJ filing is set up to strongly encourage Cannon to change her mind, and to declare that classified materials will not get a special master review. And if she doesn't change her mind, the Eleventh Circuit is likely to change it for her. Assuming that the classified materials are taken off the table, then the special master process will become orders of magnitude easier, since it could be handled by any experienced attorney or current/former federal judge.

N.S. in Milwaukee, WI, asks: Up until August, you often responded to the perception that AG Merrick Garland was dragging his feet on investigating Donald Trump by saying, essentially, that it takes a long time to get your ducks in a row, and the DoJ doesn't prosecute unless the case is a slam dunk. Then the FBI searched Mar-a-Lago, and the picture changed. But here's the thing: stealing classified documents wasn't even on anyone's Trump crime radar prior to the search, and now it's as if everyone has forgotten that Robert Mueller (whose duck-organizing skills are known to be pretty good) served up 11 possible counts of obstruction of justice on a silver platter, just waiting for an AG whose corruption level was less than Bill Barr. Probably not all of those counts are slam dunks—maybe even a majority are not—but it's hard to believe there isn't at least a layup or two in there.

What's your take on why Garland hasn't just dotted some i's and crossed some t's on Mueller's work so he could act on it? And why is this so far off everyone's radar now?

V & Z answer: Even the mighty Department of Justice has limits on how many things it can handle at any one time. And on the Trump legal front, their potential areas of inquiry include not only the Mueller Report stuff, but also the 1/6 insurrection, and the documents at Mar-A-Lago and possibly shenanigans related to his inaugural committee fundraising. And each of these involves not only the former president, but also dozens or hundreds of other people.

On top of that, prosecutors tend to go after the lowest-hanging fruit. It is true that Robert Mueller did a lot of the duck organizing when it comes to conspiring with the Russians and/or obstruction of justice. However, the various potential crimes involved are somewhat nebulous and difficult to prove. Further, the DoJ would have to rely on witnesses that are less-than-ideal, including people who are still Trump insiders, along with a lot of people who are now disaffected former Trump insiders and who might be portrayed by the defense as people with an ax to grind.

The Mar-a-Lago documents and the insurrection are both considerably more pressing in terms of the threats posed to the United States. And, they appear to involve offenses that are much more provable, while also resting on evidence that's far less solid. It's probably also the case, if we may continue with the fruity metaphors, that the DoJ only gets one bite at the Trump apple, and that if they fail in their first case against him, they won't be able to bring a second due to political considerations.

Add it up, and we're not surprised that Mueller's report appears to be on the back burner, and some of the other stuff appears to be the focus.

J.N. in Freeland, WA, asks: In my admittedly incomplete understanding of the criminal justice system, a criminal trial conviction requires a unanimous jury to find beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty of the crimes charged. That would, to me, suggest that there is a HUGE ("yuge"?) risk that TFG will escape judgment because his attorneys only need to convince a single juror that there is "reasonable doubt" of his guilt. I find it, indeed, "unreasonable" to expect that TFG's attorney will be unable to ensure there is at least one—and probably several—persuadable (if not outright biased) person(s) empaneled on the jury.

Please convince me such fears are unfounded.

V & Z answer: To start, note the word "reasonable." For a juror to vote for acquittal, it is not merely enough that there be some possibility of innocence. For example, it is at least possible that space aliens invaded Mar-a-Lago and left the classified documents there and Trump had no idea. But that wild hypothetical, while it cannot be completely ruled out, is not enough to justify reasonable doubt.

If the feds do go after Trump, it almost certainly means they have him dead to rights. And so the concern is less about reasonable doubt and more about a juror who is in the bag for Trump and simply won't find him guilty regardless. Prosecutors and judges are pretty good at weeding folks like that out, particularly in high-profile cases.

If such a person does get through the process, and the jury deliberates for several days before reporting that they are deadlocked 11-1 or 10-2, a federal judge will usually give what's called an Allen charge, which is an instruction to the jurors to go back and reconsider their positions. That's not legal in many states, but it is in federal court.

If the jury were to be hung even after some arm-twisting by the judge, then a mistrial would be declared, and the DoJ would have the right to retry the case. If it is 11-1 (or 10-2), then that is generally a very useful piece of information for all involved. That would tend to encourage the feds to try again, while it might also encourage the defense to pursue a plea bargain, for fear that they aren't lucky enough to find a friendly juror the second time.

Your concerns, in short, are not wholly unreasonable. But we would say they are a bit overblown, and that you should generally have confidence that the feds know how to deal with situations like these.

S.B. in Los Angeles, CA, asks: In the ongoing coverage of the passing of Queen Elizabeth II, there was commentary about how her personal views on various political issues were largely unknown since she studiously observed custom in this regard. There was a historian who surmised that her views were probably recorded in her personal diary which she regularly kept throughout her life but would not be released in any form for many years or perhaps decades.

This got me thinking with respect to our current travails with Donald Trump taking loads of federal documents and the efforts to investigate the situation. If, like Queen Elizabeth, a president maintained a personal diary that, for example, they kept and wrote in their residence before going to bed at night (and not like an official log in the Oval Office) would that diary be considered part of the presidential documents that must be regulated by the National Archives?

V & Z answer: Generally speaking, no, it would not be.

The law most certainly recognizes a distinction between, for example, Joe Biden the private citizen and Joe Biden the President of the United States, and not every document that Biden receives, produces, reads or touches during his term is automatically government property. If he gets a birthday card from one of his grandkids, then that's his personal property. If he gets a birthday card from Liz Truss, then that is regarded as a message to the President of the United States, and not to Biden the private citizen, and is thus government property. Nearly every president, after leaving office, has to return a few things they took with them, simply because they (or, really, their staff) incorrectly judged where the line was for some documents.

A president's diary, if it was kept for their personal reasons and needs, would clearly fall on the "private citizen" side of the line. And this isn't merely hypothetical; Ronald Reagan kept a daily diary while president, and there was no issue when he took it with him on leaving the White House, nor when his family published it.

S.S-L. in Norman, OK, asks: Could you tell us a bit about the Queen's powers and responsibilities? I was under the impression that she just ate crudités and decorated fancy houses; occasionally knighting someone or dining with a foreign politician. I honestly thought she was a figurehead.

V & Z answer: She is a figurehead. In the United States the president is both responsible for running the government and serving as head of state. In the United Kingdom, by contrast, those jobs are given to two different people, with the prime minister running the government and the monarch serving as head of state.

What this means is that the monarch is responsible for serving as a living embodiment of all that is good and great about the British people. And with that implicitly comes a responsibility to be an inspiration and a role model for millions of Britons and other residents of the Commonwealth. In practice, this means doing a lot of ribbon cuttings and other ceremonial events, and giving occasional addresses to the public, and lending support to various charities and worthy causes, and singling worthy citizens out for special recognition with knighthoods or other honors.

That said, the British people (and the people of the other Commonwealth realms) place value on historical continuity. And so, the monarch does many of the sorts of things that monarchs did 200, 400, 600 years ago. They "approve" high-ranking government officials. They "sign" laws. They give a speech at the opening of each parliamentary session that lays out the government's agenda. They "meet" with foreign leaders. However, in contrast to someone like Henry VIII or George III, the modern-day monarch has no actual power in these circumstances. They cannot reject a prime minister or refuse to sign a law. The "setting the agenda" speech they give is written for them by the ruling government. They cannot conduct any actual diplomacy. Any monarch who tried to exercise real power in these areas would create a scandal, and might well find themselves ejected from the throne (though they would probably keep their head on their shoulders, unlike the good old days).

To the extent that a monarch has power, then, it's very, very soft power. They can't openly share their opinions on things, but they can influence public sentiment a little with their choice of which causes they support. For example, Charles III is likely to become patron of many environmental groups, as he's known to be very green. Also, the monarch has weekly chats with the prime minister, and can exert a little influence behind the scenes in that way.


B.W. in Columbia, MD, asks: I recall that abolishing the filibuster and packing the Supreme Court were issues recently, but with a 50-50 Senate, and a certain West Virginia senator siding with the Republicans on these issues, it all kind of tapered off. If the Senate goes 52-48 Democrat, like your site currently predicts, are these two issues back on the table, and if so, realistic possibilities?

V & Z answer: That is an excellent question. On one hand, "I'll kill the filibuster" has become something of a litmus test for Democratic candidates for the Senate. It's a main plank of Lt. Gov. John Fetterman's (D-PA) platform, for example. So, if the Democrats get enough votes to kill the filibuster and to do some other aggressive things without needing that West Virginia senator, or a certain senator from Arizona, then they may well do it.

The biggest hold-up, and the reason that we can't be certain, is that the intransigence of Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema made it possible for many members of the Democratic caucus to avoid going on the record. It is possible that if the Democrats get serious about killing the filibuster, and appear to have 50 votes to do so, that someone like Jon Tester (D-MT) or maybe Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) could be outed as pro-filibuster.

J.M. in Laguna Beach, CA, asks: I don't believe I'm the only one, but how many Democrats, Republicans and independents are just plan sick and tired of seeing, hearing and living with 24/7 nonstop Trump sh**? If enough people realize voting against the candidates he supports would force the Republicans to shed themselves of him I bet the midterms would turn into a blue tsunami. What do you think?

V & Z answer: There is no question that a huge percentage of people—including, according to polls, many Republicans—are weary of Donald Trump's constant barrage of stuff. However, nearly all Democrats and most independents are already voting against him.

So, the only real question is whether Republicans might pull their support from his candidates in hopes of getting rid of him. And, on that front, there are at least two issues we can see. The first is that many people find it very hard to vote for a party they don't like (i.e., the Democrats), even if they are very unhappy with their own party and its leadership. The second is that if these folks are going to hold their noses and vote Democratic for the reason you state, then they would need to be pretty well convinced that a devastating defeat for the Trumpers would make him go away. But, truth be told, that's not likely to happen. If Blake Masters (AZ), Mehmet Oz (PA), J.D. Vance (OH) and the rest of the Trumpers are swamped in November, it may cause GOP leadership and politicians to back even further away from The Donald. But it's not likely to shut him up; he likes the attention (and the grift) too much, and he'll just say that there was voter fraud and that anyone who doesn't agree is a RINO and blah, blah, blah.

The only ways in which the Republican Party, and the country in general, will be purged of Trump, we think, is if he dies or if he goes to prison. And even the latter case is no guarantee.

J.B. in Hutto, TX, asks: Why is the Senate race in North Carolina receiving so little attention compared to the races in Arizona, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, and Wisconsin?

V & Z answer: We would suggest to you that the race in Florida is also getting relatively little attention. And if you accept that proposition, then the answer is clear: the Republican candidates running in Arizona, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin tend to say and do a lot of dumb and damaging things, and that is something that creates headlines and triggers media coverage.

This is a dynamic that even affects our coverage. Many outlets focus on the outrageous stuff because it attracts eyeballs and/or clicks. In our case, we pay zero attention to those concerns. However, we do write about things that could influence a particular political races. And "Fetterman holds a rally" or "Sen. Mark Kelly (D-AZ) cuts the ribbon at the newest Applebee's location" are not likely to change the trajectory of their respective electoral contests, while "Oz makes an out-of-touch video about crudités," or "Masters makes a racist remark about the federal reserve" very well could.

S.P. in Torrance, CA, asks: As the Republicans are now moving towards the center on abortion rights, would it be wise for the House to pass an abortion bill by end of September 2022 to guarantee abortion on a federal level? The Senate could take up the bill and let the Republicans sweat. If the members of the red team vote for the bill, they lose the base and if they vote against it they lose women and moderates. Republicans will be in a no win situation.

Are the House and Senate thinking about putting the Republicans under the grinder for a change?

V & Z answer: Broadly speaking, the Democrats have made very clear that they are willing to use every trick in the book this cycle to try to hold on to the trifecta. More specifically, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) have demonstrated that they are perfectly comfortable with "show" votes that are designed to put the Republicans on the hot seat.

So, we think that a vote on a federal abortion-protection bill is considerably more likely than not, although somewhat close to the election, so as to maximize the effect. The only ways it doesn't happen, we would guess, is if Schumer and Pelosi conclude they don't have the votes in the House, or if they conclude that such a bill is likely to hurt Democrats in swing states/districts, where pro-choice might not be a majority position.

K.F. in Austin, TX, asks: Your item "Seven Races That Could Determine Control of the House" was potentially very helpful in determining where those of us who are interested in retaining (or changing) House control should focus our efforts.

It occurs to me though, that you often reveal a knowledge and understanding of the amount of cash that each campaign has on hand, the relative gaps in financing between one side and the other, and the potential benefits of campaign finance given the particular district and media market. And, to put it mildly, you are more than casually aware of the polling.

Would not be ideally situated to provide its readers with some expert guidance on which campaigns might gain the most leverage from our cash contributions? If so, would you consider making this an occasional or regular feature?

V & Z answer: That is not something we would do, because it would be de facto advocacy for specific politicians. We openly advocate for making sure that everyone gets the right to vote (that is the theme of the banners that appear at the top of the page), but we do not promote or endorse specific candidates.

That said, there are folks who are in the business of answering the question you asked. If you want to support Democrats in competitive House races, you could just give money to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and trust them to invest it wisely. If you are interested in promoting progressive candidates, in particular, then that is SwingLeft's bailiwick. And if you want advice as to specific candidates who are particularly good investments, BlueTent has you covered.

On the Republican side, there's the National Republican Congressional Committee if you just want to give some money and let someone else do the thinking. Or, if you want specific candidates to support, WinRed chooses one candidate per week to highlight.

J.M. in Silver Spring, MD, asks: I read the item about the seven key House races. Reading the one about the Pennsylvania district, I stopped to wonder if people other than presidential candidates might have coattails. Do you think that John Fetterman might have coattails to help out in races like that one?

V & Z answer: It is very possible; he's popular enough and he's got enough people excited that he may well get people to the polls who otherwise wouldn't show up, and who will vote a Democratic ticket.

That said, the polls—including one today; see below—consistently suggest he's putting the race out of reach. And that is something that can sometimes cause supporters to get lazy.

A.L. from Woodmere, NY, asks: Is it really true that most of America hates women, like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) said?

I'm wondering if we can find a single state that hasn't elected a woman to a statewide elected position. If all states have at least one woman elected at some point to such a position, doesn't that refute her claim?

V & Z answer: We'll start with the latter portion of your question. There are 17 states that have never sent a woman to the U.S. Senate: Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Utah, Vermont, and Virginia.

If we eliminate states from that list that have elected a woman governor, we're left with just five: Colorado, Idaho, Indiana, Pennsylvania and Virginia. As chance would have it, four of those five currently have a woman serving as lieutenant governor: Dianne Primavera (D-CO), Janice McGeachin (R-ID), Suzanne Crouch (R-IN) and Winsome Earle-Sears (R-VA). The exception is Pennsylvania, of course, and they too have had a woman lieutenant governor in the past, namely Catherine Baker Knoll (D).

So, we need only consider the three most important statewide offices in order to conclude that every single state has elected a woman statewide. That said, this doesn't actually prove what you propose that it proves. First, in most elections, the majority does not vote. It is entirely plausible for 20-25% of the population to elect a candidate, meaning that such a victory reveals nothing about the views of the other 75-80%. Second, there are plenty of racists who vote for the occasional Black or brown candidate because "they're one of the good ones," or because that candidate has the all-important D or R after their name, or because it helps that voter to persuade themselves that they are not really a racist. Similarly, we have no doubt that there are plenty of sexists and/or misogynists who occasionally vote for female candidates for the same reasons.

And really, the important takeaway here is... you should never, ever trust The New York Post. The headline of the article you sent us, the one linked above, is: "AOC predicts she won't be president—because Americans 'hate women'." That is a gross misrepresentation of what she said, but because it's so leading, and because it's clearly designed to attract clickthroughs from AOC haters, it is probable that most readers don't properly absorb the actual quote, which is buried fairly deep into the article. What she actually said was this:

I hold two contradictory things [in mind] at the same time. One is just the relentless belief that anything is possible. But at the same time, my experience here has given me a front-row seat to how deeply and unconsciously, as well as consciously, so many people in this country hate women. And they hate women of color.

In short, she did not say that "Americans hate women," which is clearly not true. What she said was that there are probably too many woman-haters out there for her to be a viable presidential candidate. That is entirely plausible, and few people, if any, are in a better position to judge that than AOC herself.

K.T. in Columbus, OH, asks: If polling is based on a likely voter model that includes whether a person has voted previously—and the majority of newly registered voters are young and/or female voters who favor Democratic positions on abortion, climate, guns, democracy, etc.—does this mean that the likely voter models are systematically understating Democratic support even now?

V & Z answer: This was a popular question this week. Every pollster has its own secret sauce for likely voters. All pollsters understand that some people are newly registered. so the model is not entirely based on "Did you vote last time?" Other questions include: "How closely do you follow the election?" "How enthusiastic are you about voting?" "Do you think it important that everyone votes?" " Do you think it is every citizen's duty to vote?" and more.

In short, the pollsters probably aren't, on the whole, undercounting or underweighting these voters. If you'd like to read more about this somewhat weedy issue, see here, here, and here.


L.P. in Chippewa Falls, WI, asks: I have heard that a pardon is not really a Get Out of Jail Free card. It is an admission of guilt and an acknowledgment that the person has changed their ways or somehow earned back their freedom. Is this true? If so, can the prosecution in New York state simply say, "Hey, Mr. Bannon admitted he was guilty... who wants to go to lunch?" That seems entirely too good to be true.

V & Z answer: It is too good to be true.

A little over a century ago, the Supreme Court took up the somewhat famous case Burdick v. United States (1915), prompted when journalist George Burdick attempted to refuse a pardon from Woodrow Wilson. Burdick was a newspaper editor who had printed stories based on leaks from anonymous government sources, and the government wanted to know who the sources were. Had Burdick accepted the pardon, he would have lost his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination, and so would have been forced to testify as to the identity of his sources.

In the case, the Supreme Court ruled that Burdick could indeed refuse the pardon. And in the majority opinion, Associate Justice Joseph McKenna—exploring some of the reasons someone should be able to decline a pardon—wrote that a pardon carries "an imputation of guilt and acceptance of a confession of it." But this was not the main finding of the case, or the main issue at stake, and the Court has never again considered this particular question.

Meanwhile, it is also quite clear that many presidents have used pardons as a means of correcting an injustice, and freeing (or at least clearing the good name of) someone who was wrongly convicted.

And so, there is just no way a judge would buy the argument that, ipso facto, acceptance of a pardon means admission of guilt.

S.S. in West Hollywood, CA, asks: It's clear Judge Aileen Cannon's unprecedented decision to allow a special master to review the documents taken from Mar-a-Lago is political with no basis in law. Are there any options to remove or demote a judge who has shown herself willing to ignore the law and all precedent in service to a political agenda? (You know, before the next Republican president appoints her to the Supreme Court.)

V & Z answer: The only way to remove a judge is through impeachment. Good luck to Chuck Schumer trying to get 17 Republicans to sign off on that. And a judge can't be demoted, especially since Cannon is at the lowest level of the system right now.

C.B. in Beavercreek, OH, asks: One question that has been running through my mind: Say that, late on January 6, that the Vice President was not available. "The President of the Senate shall, in the presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the certificates and the votes shall then be counted."

Would the president pro tempore of the Senate step in? That would have been Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), who seems to get on by just doing what Trump wants. Did we come closer than we thought?

V & Z answer: Yes, the president pro tempore would have stepped in. However, while Grassley sometimes kowtows to Trump, it's a big assumption that he would be willing to try to overturn an election for the former president. Further, the Democrats regained the majority on January 5, one day earlier, when their candidates won both of the Senate races in Georgia. The Party did not actually seat Sens. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff until January 20, and so did not replace Grassley with Sen. Pat Leahy (D-VT) until that date. However, had there been a constitutional crisis, they would have sped the process up, we are sure.

In short, we did not really come all that close.

C.B. in Beavercreek, OH, asks: I know you aren't lawyers (nor am I) but I'd like your take on whether Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas could face Federal charges for trafficking in persons. He's acknowledged that these are undocumented immigrants and he's moved them across state lines, so it seems he and/or the bus drivers knowingly violated the law.


V & Z answer: Here's how the U.N. defines human trafficking: "Human Trafficking is the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of people through force, fraud or deception, with the aim of exploiting them for profit."

We also took a look at the federal statutes, and several state statutes, and they all refer to profit or making money or financial gain. Further, Abbott is a lawyer and he has many other lawyers working for him. So, we are certain he's in the clear, since he's not profiting from his actions (at least, not in the way that the statutes are using the term).


R.L. in Alameda, CA, asks: During the early stage of the pandemic, when everything was locked down here in California and we were (mostly) stuck in our homes, a good friend of mine who is blessed with dual citizenship took a look at the situation in Canada and decided to pick up and move to the Vancouver area. During a recent visit, we had a conversation about the different nature of pandemic protests in the two countries. He pointed out that, at least in and around metro Vancouver, people largely complied with pandemic restrictions, got vaccinated when vaccines became available, and that COVID never got very bad in the region. (Yes there were eventually truck protests in Ottawa and at the Ambassador Bridge, but this was a small and vocal minority).

He posited that a major reason for the difference in attitude between the two counties is that the United States was born out of rebellion whereas Canada was born out of British indifference and boredom with managing its empire. He believes that the ripple of rebellion continues to this day and that it explains our very contentious and divided politics, our gun culture, and the vocal contingent of anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers. I posited in a recent letter that (quoting myself) "helping people in need is such a non-starter for so many." This, I think, falls into the same bucket. We just aren't a society that prioritizes helping people less well off ourselves (ironic since people on the Right love to claim that we are a Christian nation). We're much more "every man for himself." (I'm using "man" rather than "person" intentionally).

However, my friend and I are amateur historians at best. What does the professional historian in the room think of our theory?

V & Z answer: Perhaps the most famous American historical essay ever written is Frederick Jackson Turner's "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," (1893), which tries to figure out what the essence of American culture is, and where it comes from. He reached some of the same conclusions that you do, although fighting and conquering the Native Americans plays a very big role in his analysis (and not yours, obviously).

U.S. Historians generally frown on this sort of macro-analysis, as it's hard to prove. On the other hand, the folks who do Latin America are more than happy to reach broad conclusions about how cultures were affected by colonialism, so it kinda depends on what kind of historian you're talking to. For his part, (Z) would add a couple of things to the conversation. First, there are plenty of pleasant Americans and there are certainly some rude Canadians (e.g., Don Cherry). And to some extent, national reputations are subject to confirmation bias, such that we only remember, for example, polite behavior by Canadians and bad behavior by Americans. So, we probably shouldn't play up the divide too much.

That is not to say there's no divide at all; the U.S. surely is culturally different from Canada. And if (Z) was to try to explain why, he probably wouldn't focus so much on the origins of the two nations as the fact that the U.S. is much more diverse than Canada (so, more tribalism) and the U.S. is much more aggressively capitalist than Canada (so, more competition for resources).

S.W. in New York City, New York, asks: In thinking about the unveiling the other day of the presidential/presidential spouse portraits at the White House, I was wondering about the process of how these portraits come about. Does the (usually) next succeeding President order them? Who decides who the artists are? Who decides if they like the way they are being painted? Do they sit for the portraits or does the artist use photographs? And, of course, will future Presidents just skip over Donald Trump or paint him in horizontal stripes or orange jumpsuits?

V & Z answer: Since the 1960s, the process has been managed by the White House Historical Association (WHHA). Before that, it was generally managed by the first lady. It is up to the WHHA to make the arrangements, though the organization allows the presidents and first ladies to decide which artists execute the portraits.

The timeline varies depending on the president. In many cases, the president will sit while they are still in office. Sometimes, they don't get around to it and sit sometime after departing. This was the case with the Obamas, and also for the Nixons who, as you may have heard, left office hurriedly and unexpectedly. Sometimes, a president dies in office without having done a portrait. What used to happen, as with William Henry Harrison, is that the White House would locate an existing portrait and "adopt" that as the official one for the executive mansion. Now, since there are often photographs available, and since there's much more tolerance for "interpretation," the portraits for those who died prematurely are usually created after their passing. For example, the portrait of John F. Kennedy is one of the more famous ones, and was painted about 7 years after his assassination. That may seem like a long time, but it's nothing compared to the White House portrait of Martha Jefferson, which was painted more than 200 years after her passing. That one's a total fantasy, as there are no known images of her created during her lifetime.

There is usually a sitting (or two or three), and then the process is completed with the aid of photographs. Barack Obama's process was unusual, in that his portrait is meant to be photo-realistic. So, he only sat for a photo shoot, and then never again.

A president can reject their portrait, and demand a re-do, sometimes by the same artist, sometimes by a different one. Theodore Roosevelt, Lyndon B. Johnson and Ronald Reagan all insisted a second portrait be executed when they did not like the first. It's probably not a coincidence that list includes two of the three biggest presidential egos the White House has ever seen (TR and LBJ).

The third entry on the giant ego list is Trump. And the WHHA will eventually contact him and try to make arrangements for his portrait (and Melania's). On one hand, this would be somewhat tantamount to admitting that he won't be president again. On the other hand, he loves anything that pays tribute to Donald Trump. So, it could go either way. If he does not sit, the WHHA will still commission a portrait, just without his input. And if the portrait is done in time, we would expect that Joe Biden will invite Trump to the White House, but that Trump will decline the invitation.

M.G. in Boulder, CO, asks: Uncle Tom's Cabin has been suggested as the Great American Novel. Of the books discussed so far, it is probably the most historically important. As a historian specializing in the Civil War period, would you tell us about the historic effect and treatment of this important novel?

V & Z answer: The book was a runaway bestseller by the standards of its day. However, the main way it reached Americans was not in written form, but instead in theatrical adaptations. Northerners tended to see adaptations that highlighted the evils of slavery. For Southern performances, remarkably, the book was adapted into a pro-slavery work.

There is little question that the book, and the theatrical adaptations, shaped Americans' attitudes about slavery and hardened the sectional divide. Abraham Lincoln, who oughta know, acknowledged as much when he met author Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1862 and observed, "So this is the little lady who started this great war."

The big point of confusion, for students and non-students alike, is this: Uncle Tom's Cabin did not convert very many Northerners into abolitionists. Abolitionism was the extreme position. But this was also not a digital situation, where the only choice was "abolitionist" or "no opinion on slavery whatsoever." Uncle Tom's Cabin most certainly caused millions of Northerners to look askance at the morality of slavery and that, when combined with their concerns about the economics of slavery, helped turn them into free soilers. That meant that they were willing to tolerate slavery where it already existed, but not to allow it to spread to any new states or territories. The free soil position is the one that ultimately proved unreconcilable with the pro-slavery position, and that plunged the nation into civil war.

In the event it's helpful, a somewhat decent modern parallel to Uncle Tom's Cabin would be something like Al Gore's documentary An Inconvenient Truth. Did that film instantly convert millions of people into fanatical members of the Green Party, or into eco-terrorists? No. But did it cause millions of people to start thinking seriously about the threats posed by global warming, and did it start to shift the Overton Window on that issue? Yes, it did.

H.F. in Pittsburgh, PA, asks: A question about favorite American novels: Was The Wizard of Oz written as a fantasy for children or as a political satire of U.S. society? There do seem to be a lot of symbols in it: the Emerald City is Washington, D.C., the Tin Woodsman represents urban factory workers, the Scarecrow represents rural farmers, and so forth. Yes, I'm aware of the historian Henry Littlefield, but I'm not 100% convinced that Baum intended all of that. Nobody focused on the symbolism until Littlefield wrote about it 45 years after Baum's death. I guess that some allegories are more allegorical than others, to paraphrase George Orwell.

V & Z answer: Just so all readers are clear, The Wizard of Oz was written by L. Frank Baum in 1900. In 1964, long after the novel came out, and well after Baum's passing in 1919, the Columbia University historian Henry Littlefield wrote a widely-read essay in which he argued that the whole book is an allegory for Populism.

This is an entirely plausible thesis, since Baum was a Populist who volunteered for the presidential campaign of William Jennings Bryan in 1896. In this interpretation, in addition to the symbols already noted, the Wizard represents President McKinley, Dorothy represents "regular Americans," and the cowardly lion represents William Jennings Bryan (note the rhyme of "lion" and "Bryan"). The yellow brick road, which leads our heroes to nowhere and ultimately does not solve Dorothy's problem, represents gold. As anyone who has seen the 1939 movie will tell you, the thing that ultimately does solve Dorothy's problem is the ruby slippers. But they were only ruby slippers in the movie, a choice that was made to highlight the relatively new technology of color film. In the book, the slippers that solve her problem are made out of... silver.

So, it's a book that teaches us that gold solves nothing and silver solves everything. That's a pretty darn populist message, if (Z) has ever heard one. But the detail that really sells (Z) on the interpretation is this: The Wicked Witches of the West and the East represent bankers and business owners. And when the former is killed, it is with water. After our heroes do that (inadvertently), and report back to the Wizard, he observes: "You liquidated her, eh?" That's a very unusual turn of phrase, unless the author is going for the dual meaning of "killed with water" and "put out of business."

So yes, (Z) buys the Oz-as-Populist-allegory interpretation, and has delivered that lecture at least 100 times. And if that interpretation was not Baum's intent, well... it doesn't matter. It is not the privilege of the artist to dictate what audiences take from their art.


S.C. in Mountain View, CA, asks: I am curious to know what was on the list for the scavenger hunt (Z) organized for his birthday. I especially would like to know if any of these items were on the list, and if anyone was successful in finding them:

Enquiring minds want to know...

V & Z answer: (Z) used the term scavenger hunt as a descriptor, because that's the best available option. But actually, the event is a series of tasks/puzzles built around a specific location. Sometimes, one of the tasks is a straight scavenger hunt. And usually, some of the items required are semi-political in nature. For example, the year the event was built around the main branch of the L.A. public library, players had to take a picture of "A book that Donald Trump would dislike" and "A book that is not likely to be found in the U.S.C. library."

Most of the "scavenging," however, is scavenging for the information needed to solve the puzzles. This year, the event was built around the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, and was 100% that sort of scavenging. Well, actually, it was more like 66.6% that sort of scavenging. To give people a chance to sit and rest, puzzles 3, 6, and 9 were designed such that the museum wasn't really necessary.

If anyone cares to see, this is the PDF from this year. Again, not all the puzzles are doable without the museum, but 3, 6, and 9 definitely are, and 4 and 8 might be doable. Given the interest in Wordle, #9 might be of particular interest. Each puzzle produces, in some way, the name of an Academy Award winner. You can feel free to e-mail in and check your solutions.

J.H. in El Segundo, CA, asks: I really enjoyed the "Oh, Those Russians!" reference to the song "Rasputin" (the line is at the very end if the song). Boney M was pretty big in Europe but not much in America. I had never heard of their music until a friend who grew up out of the country introduced them to me. My question for (V) and (Z) is: Which one of you was inspired to add this reference? I will go out on a limb and say it was (V) as he is based in Europe, but you never know, (Z) may be a Caribbean disco fan. One other question, why do you think Boney M's music was huge in Europe, but not as popular here in America, as their music was really good? Maybe some Cold War or other biases?

V & Z answer: It was (Z), and you could guess for a long time and not come up with the reason for his familiarity with the song. It is because it's one of the pre-installed songs that comes with the Wii game "Just Dance 2."

As to why some artists hit it big on only one side of the pond, that's a question that's been frustrating music producers for generations. Why do Europeans love David Gray or Leona Lewis or Take That, while Americans are much less interested? Why do Americans love The Steve Miller Band, Nirvana and Aerosmith, while Europeans are less interested? Why are Japanese people fanatical about Cheap Trick? Why is Sugar Man a god in South Africa, but a has-been everywhere else? What is the deal with the Germans and David Hasselhoff? Who knows? For Boney M, we could point to the fact that they came from Germany, were produced by a German, and mostly toured in central Europe, and so presumably had much more of a European sensibility, whatever that means. But Boney M is also huge in India, so there goes that theory.

W.H., San Jose, CA, asks: How much work is it to research the answers for the weekly Q&A session? For example, I could likely find out which presidents were once lieutenant governors, but it would take me about 30 minutes of work on Wikipedia. Is that something that you just happen to know? Or does every Saturday's Q&A take many person-hours?

V & Z answer: Relatively little research. We mostly select questions that we can answer, at least mostly, off the top of our heads. Then, we sometimes need to track down specific details we don't have memorized, or links we want to include. For today's post, it took about an hour to select and format the questions, about half an hour to do research, and about four hours to write the answers. This is pretty typical.

Today's Senate Polls

That's two swing states where things are looking good for the Democrats. That said, we're not sure which of Emerson's two polls are harder to swallow—that Mark Kelly is only up by 2 points, or that Chuck Schumer is only up by 24.

State Democrat D % Republican R % Start End Pollster
Arizona Mark Kelly* 45% Blake Masters 39% Sep 06 Sep 07 InsiderAdvantage
Arizona Mark Kelly* 47% Blake Masters 45% Sep 06 Sep 07 Emerson Coll.
New York Chuck Schumer* 55% Joe Pinion 31% Sep 04 Sep 06 Emerson Coll.
Pennsylvania John Fetterman 49% Mehmet Oz 40% Aug 31 Sep 03 RABA Research

* Denotes incumbent

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