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Saturday Q&A

And, after a week off, the Q&A is back. Let's start with the single-most common question we got in the last couple of weeks.

Current Events

C.V. in Boston, MA, asks: Does Donald Trump's loss in the case against E. Jean Carroll require him to register as a sex offender wherever he lives?

(V) & (Z) answer: No. A person must register in the state(s) in which they reside, regardless of the state in which their case was heard, so living in Florida would not be a "workaround" for having lost case in New York. However, it is usually the case that a requirement to register is only triggered by a criminal conviction.

It is possible that there are jurisdictions out there that require reporting of a civil finding but, if so, there aren't many of them. And Florida, New York, New Jersey, and the federal government all draw the line at a criminal connection, so as long as Trump only resides at his golf courses, Trump Tower, or in Washington, DC, he's definitely in the clear.

D.S. in Albuquerque, NM, asks: Now that E. Jean Carroll has won her civil judgment against Trump, how does she actually collect? This trial was a great moral victory for her, who will always be remembered for her courage, tenacity and humanity, in stark contrast to the debauched venality of one Donald J. Trump. I just don't see her getting the money anytime soon. What do you think her odds are?

(V) & (Z) answer: The judgment is on hold as long as the appeals process is playing out. But once Trump has exhausted his appeals, Carroll will get her money.

To start, when a defendant loses a civil case, they (or their lawyers) either have to file a financial disclosure statement, or they have to appear at a court hearing where a list of assets is presented to the judge. If Trump refuses, he'd get popped for contempt and thrown in jail. If he provides the paperwork but lies within, he could get busted for perjury. And since there is a vast paper trail speaking to where his money is, he'd be a damn fool to try it.

The court could well issue an order to a bank or other holder of Trump assets right on the spot. If Carroll has to go after the money herself, there are professionals who specialize in this, and who will be happy to do it for a very moderate fee (1%?), since even a small fraction of $5 million is a pretty nice chunk of change, plus it would be good for business to be the person who stuck it to Donald Trump. If Carroll and her debt collector were not able to find and lay hands on cash, they could go after other assets, or could place a lien on one of Trump's properties. He presumably does not draw a salary, but if he did at some point the future, either as president or as a director of his PAC, she could go after that, too.

If things really go badly, either because Trump is cash-poor or has managed to hide everything offshore, Carroll could renew the judgment after 10 years, which would give her until Trump was nearly 100 years old to collect. And when it comes to satisfying the creditors of an estate, people with judgments get to go right to the front of the line.

Finally, it is entirely possible that Trump is appealing to get some leverage for settlement talks, and that he pays willingly as a means of saving himself some cash. For example, "I will drop all appeals right now, and will have a check in your hands in 48 hours if you'll agree that $4 million discharges all of my obligations to you in this matter."

In short, Carroll is likely to get her money soon. And even if that does not happen, she will certainly get it eventually.

J.K. in Brooklyn, NY, asks: Despite your explanations, I'm still confused as to why federal procedural rules applied in the E. Jean Carroll case. The only reason Carroll was able to file suit in the first place was a change in New York State law allowing a temporary window of time for victims to file claims on long ago offenses despite the statute of limitations having passed. So if the New York state legislature made that temporary change, how did the case end up in federal court?

(V) & (Z) answer: As we noted yesterday, there are two different defamation cases that Carroll has filed against Trump. For clarity's sake, let's call them Carroll 1 (the case she just won) and Carroll 2 (the case that is still pending). Both were filed with the New York Supreme Court (remember, that's NOT the top court in New York State; the Court of Appeals is). Carroll 1 involves conduct that happened while Trump was a private citizen, Carroll 2 involves conduct that happened while Trump was president.

Part of Trump's argument in Carroll 2 is that he's automatically indemnified for anything he might have said while president, because he was speaking in his capacity as a public official. Because that is a question of federal law, the Department of Justice took over Trump's defense in Carroll 2, and got the case moved to federal court. That was back in mid-2020. And when Carroll 2 was moved, Carroll 1 was moved as well, so that the same judge was overseeing both cases.

J.S. in Rio Grande City, TX, asks: You once described as a "slam dunk" the case against Trump for his mishandling of classified documents. Why is an indictment taking so long? Is there an essential piece of evidence missing? Have Joe Biden and Mike Pence complicated the legal situation? Are the feds afraid to indict Trump and cause some violence? The next presidential election is fast approaching and that will surely complicate matters. What's going on?

(V) & (Z) answer: First, we cannot find any post where we wrote it quite like that. We might have said something like "based on what is known, it sure looks like a slam dunk." We might have quoted someone, say a former federal prosecutor, whose opinion is that it is a slam dunk. We might have run a letter from a reader who called it a slam dunk. But we know enough to know that there are things we don't know. It's just not our style to evince that level of certainty on a question like this.

And therein lies the answer to your question, such as it is. Only a small number of people know what the timeline is here. We are not among that small number, and the folks who do know will not be sharing that information until they have to.

It is unlikely that the Biden/Pence situations are relevant, or that Jack Smith & Co. are afraid to indict Trump. All we can really tell you is something we've written many times: Federal prosecutors, especially those who have risen to the heights Smith has risen to, are very, very, very meticulous. They don't do anything until they've got all their ducks in a row, and then they've double- and triple-checked that all the ducks are there. A full-fledged federal investigation can take years, or sometimes decades. The Mar-a-Lago search was in August of last year; if charges are brought anytime this year, that's still pretty fast by federal standards.

R.D. in Philadelphia, PA, asks: What do you think the odds are of the various cases against Donald Trump? Please give best educated guess of odds of indictment and odds the indictment leads to a guilty verdict:

  1. Jack Smith case
  2. Fulton County, Georgia
  3. E. Jean Carroll filing another defamation lawsuit after CNN town hall, or any other pending Carroll lawsuits.
  4. State of New York vs Trump Organization

(V) & (Z) answer: We will offer our usual caveat that we are not lawyers. And we will reiterate the caveat from above that we do not have anything close to complete information here. Nonetheless, for entertainment purposes only, here are our guesses:

  1. The Jack Smith case is, of course, the Jack Smith cases. He's handling the 1/6 stuff, and he's also handling the Mar-a-Lago documents. Between the two, the odds of at least one indictment are surely above 95%. And if the feds can't get a conviction out of "I took documents I wasn't supposed to have, and admitted multiple times, including on national TV, that I did so deliberately" then they should hand in their law licenses. We'd put the odds of conviction on the documents alone at somewhere above 85%. The 1/6 case is harder, but it's still pretty strong, especially given how many other people have already paid a price for their activities that day. Let's give that one a 50% chance of conviction.

  2. The Georgia case is also 95%+ to produce an indictment. As we've already written, not only does Trump appear to be badly exposed, but it makes little sense for DA Fani Willis to warn law enforcement to prepare for violence unless she knows she's going to indict the former president. As to conviction, a jury would have to be absolutely convinced that the former president had corrupt intent. It looks pretty obvious to us, but Trump is going to argue hard that he wasn't asking for lawbreaking, just for a wrong to be righted. We'll say 75% chance of conviction.

  3. The Carroll suits are civil, so there's no indictment. The lawsuit that already exists (described as Carroll 2, above) comes down to whether a president can say whatever he damn well pleases. We doubt a court will agree with that notion, so we'd put it at 90% that Trump loses on that point. And if that defense goes away, well, Trump has already lost on the rest of the points that would make up his defense. Let's say 80% that he loses the "but I was president" argument AND he also loses the underlying case.

    As to a hypothetical Carroll 3 case, we would guess she has achieved what she wanted to achieve, and she won't want to be put through the grinder again. So, we'd say it's maybe only 25% it happens. But if it does, again, Trump has already lost on the core elements of the case. So, he's probably 80% to lose Carroll 3 if it happens.

  4. And finally, in New York, a civil case has already been filed against Trump. That means no indictment, though state AG Letitia James has suggested the feds might want to pursue criminal charges. Our guess is that it's more likely they decline than they move forward; maybe 35% chance of a federal indictment. As to James' civil case, she's got a lot of evidence and has already defeated other members of the Trump Organization (e.g., Allen Weisselberg, in partnership with the Manhattan DA). We'd say she's at least 80% to nail Trump, though many Americans will be disappointed that this will not lead to jail time.

J.D.M. in Cottonwood Shores, TX, asks: I saw more than one article that said the CNN Town Hall would actually be damaging to Trump. Joe Biden even sent out a tweet to that effect. What is your opinion of this view?

(V) & (Z) answer: There's something to that, as the Town Hall produced a lot of video you will probably be seeing again (a bunch) in 2024. For example, Trump said he would probably abandon Volodymyr Zelenskyy. He also showed that he's not going to be able to dance around the abortion issue anymore, and called for a national abortion ban. And, of course, he said nasty things about a woman he sexually assaulted.

S.W. in New York City, NY, asks: Is CNN expected to give every Republican or Democratic candidate for President a Town Hall Forum in New Hampshire this coming year?

(V) & (Z) answer: Do you mean "Are arrangements in place for this to happen?" If so, the answer is "no." Or do you mean "Is there an expectation that CNN will do this?" If so, the answer is still no. They certainly might give some candidates a chance, particularly Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL). But those candidates might not be interested in going into "enemy" territory, or CNN might not want a repeat of this week's fiasco. Certainly, CNN is not required to give other Republicans a turn; the equal time rule has been dead for decades, and even when it was in effect, it only applied to broadcast stations (not cable).

D.L. in Florence, MA, asks: Isn't there an exception to the filibuster rule for issues that affect the budget? Couldn't that exception apply to the debt-ceiling vote?

(V) & (Z) answer: The debt ceiling can indeed be lifted by a reconciliation bill. However, that bill would first have to get through the House, and the House is the major hold-up here. Then, the Democrats would need at least 50 votes in the Senate, and with Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (I-AZ) doing whatever it is they're doing, it's far from guaranteed the blue team could get those 50 votes.

C.P. in Silver Spring, MD, asks: With all of the talk about the debt ceiling negotiations, I got to wondering: Why didn't the Democrats include a debt ceiling increase in the $1.7 trillion spending bill they passed back in December of last year?

(V) & (Z) answer: There was much talk of that, but again, the spending bill required 50 votes, and a debt-ceiling increase would probably have been enough to scare off a couple of crucial senators (e.g., Manchin and Sinema).

Recall that the Congress did not get around to really wrestling with this until December of last year, which left relatively little time for arm-twisting and horse trading. Further, many Democrats did not want to increase the debt ceiling solely with Democratic votes, for fear that would be used as a weapon against them. For both of these reasons, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) sounded out his most conservative members, found out they were leery, and then decided not to spend the political capital that would have been necessary to try for a debt-ceiling increase.

A.S. in Bedford MA, asks: The U.S. has always had a high proportion of immigrants. Why can't we set up a mega modern-day Ellis Island and process the new people efficiently as was done before? Or is the Ellis Island of the popular imagination a myth and immigration was a mess then too?

(V) & (Z) answer: It's not that immigration was a mess then, per se, it's that it was handled much more casually. When immigrants arrived, they were screened for disease. And there was also a screening, of sorts, for "undesirables" (criminals, political radicals, etc.), though this screening was pretty ineffectual and was more likely to target people who offended the inspectors' moral standards (e.g., pregnant, unmarried women) than it was actual undesirables.

Things were casual enough that no individual paperwork was required, not even a birth certificate or a passport. And most people were processed, admitted into the country, and left to fend for themselves in 2-3 hours. To use a modern parallel, it was more like going through customs than through a serious immigration screening. In fact, customs today is probably more rigorous than passing through Ellis Island was.

R.M.S. in Lebanon, CT, asks: Now that the COVID-19 policy at the border has been lifted, it is inevitable that there will be a huge crush of people flocking to the US-Mexico border. I believe the problems at the border could be greatly reduced if the Biden administration sent a large number of immigration judges to the ports of entry at the border to conduct asylum hearings. In 2 years they could have appointed at least 200 immigration judges. In fact, former U.S. senator Barbara Boxer has been advocating this for at least 5 years. I agree with her. It would reduce the number of people in detention and migrants would be able to request asylum before entering the U.S. If they don't have a legit case for asylum they can be sent back to Mexico. Don't you think that would be a humane solution to the border crisis? Why haven't they done this?

(V) & (Z) answer: It's not a bad idea, and the Biden administration would not disagree with you, necessarily. But it's also not that simple. In short:

One big problem here is that there are some members of Congress who don't like to spend money on things. Another big problem is that there are some members of Congress who would prefer to complain about immigration, in order to score political points, than to do something to improve the situation. A third big problem is that there are some members of Congress who would be willing to spend money at the border, but think there are more important priorities. A final big problem is that there are some members of Congress who are suspicious of much border spending, as they see it as contributing to an abusive and oppressive system. The presence of these four groups makes it hard to get a substantive immigration bill through Congress.

E.W. in Skaneateles, NY, asks: Border policy/immigration seems like a perennial losing issue for Democrats since some nonzero number of undocumented immigrants will enter the country every year. What would "success" on this issue for the Democrats look like politically? What would "progress" even look like?

(V) & (Z) answer: There is a bit of wisdom that (Z) has heard many times that goes something like this: Expanding the freeways will not help alleviate rush hour traffic, because if you add more lanes, all it will do is convince more drivers to take their chances during rush hour. This seems very plausible to (Z).

We are hardly experts in immigration policy, but we suspect that a similar dynamic applies. There's currently a backlog of nearly 2 million asylum seekers; normally the line is "merely" 1 million people long. If the Biden administration were to magically get all 2 million processed in the next, say, 6 months, our guess is that the only thing that would happen is that another million or two people would decide that the time is now ripe for THEM to line up to take their turns.

In short, the current governmental approach to the border (and the basic approach doesn't change depending on which party holds the White House, only the harshness with which it is implemented) seems doomed to fail to us. There almost certainly has to be a paradigm shift wherein the American people accept that many people want to come here, that they actually provide much value to American society, that walls and cops and bullets don't work very well, and that maybe the country should use an approach where it allows people in more liberally, perhaps in exchange for some service from the new arrivals (2 years in the military or in some sort of Job Corps?).

It seems unlikely that this paradigm shift will be coming anytime soon. The War on Drugs has not been working for something like 100 years, and yet the country is still waging it.

G.W. in Minneapolis, MN, asks: Given the recent revelations about Justice Clarence Thomas, I suspect that virtually all Democrats in the House will conclude and be willing to state publicly that he has not measured up to the Article III standard of "good Behaviour" and/or he has committed high crimes and misdemeanors (and perhaps some Republicans in the House will privately agree). If, in the next election, the Democrats take control of the House, it seems reasonably likely that Justice Thomas would be impeached (although likely not convicted). Following such a decision, do you think that Thomas might preemptively resign to avoid the stigma of being impeached (and being only the second Justice to be impeached), and to avoid nasty hearings in the House and a nasty trial in the Senate?

(V) & (Z) answer: Not a chance. Thomas is pretty clearly without shame, and would persuade himself and his right-wing friends that he is a martyr who is bravely taking one for the team.

C.W. in Carlsbad, CA, asks: Okay, I am confused. The GOP pulled every trick they could contrive to get what appears to be a watertight majority in the Supreme Court. But now they somehow feel they have to provide cash and goodies to their justices? Something is missing from this puzzle. Is it possible that Thomas is hitting them up? Is it possible he is just an opinion for hire?

I recognize this is a complex issue. But no one has ever explained the large amount of Brett Kavanaugh debt being erased. Yet now that these various payouts to Clarence Thomas have hit the public sphere, the reaction is largely 'meh' from the GOP. If all this is in the 'shady but legal' category, why doesn't Leonard Leo just say "Okay, I paid that too. So sue me!"?

I've heard rumors that the Department of Justice might be investigating. What can happen realistically, or is this just another one of those "you need to vote" moments?

(V) & (Z) answer: To start, people like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) bend over backwards to put right-wingers on the Supreme Court so they can go to voters and say "See! I got a judge seated that will strike down Roe." By contrast, getting Roe overturned is not the concern of billionaires like Harlan Crow. So, it's not incongruous that right-wing benefactors would provide money or other benefits to right-wing judges even after those judges had been seated.

As to Thomas, if the DoJ really is investigating, they will certainly go after him if they find something. Based on what is publicly known, the most likely crime is some version of tax evasion, but that's still pretty wild speculation because so little is actually known.


P.W. in Alamo, GA, asks: I saw an article this week about the possibility of Brian Kemp for President, 2024. As an independent who lives in Georgia, my first thought was "no way." But upon reflection, that may be an interesting alternative. I mean, Georgia stood up to MAGA. The state is considered purple by some. What are your thoughts?

(V) & (Z) answer: No way. The vast majority of Republican voters are Trumpublicans, and they hate Kemp because he didn't give the state over in 2020, and because he's backed non-Trumpy challengers to Trumpy office-seekers. Meanwhile, Democrats will want to vote for an actual Democrat, not a Republican, particularly a Republican who signed a harsh abortion bill into law. There's no more lane for Kemp than there is for Mike Pence.

T.R. in Metuchen, NJ, asks: I really don't understand why anyone really cares about presidential approval/disapproval polls anymore. Oh, I get the media has to write about something and a poll is... something. But half the country is going to hate the current guy because he's a Democrat or a Republican. And some 20% of the remaining is going to hate the current guy because he's not liberal or conservative enough. Not to mention we don't have national elections, we have 51 individual elections. NPR (from 2016) says that the Presidential race can be won with just 23% of the popular vote. (Yeah, I know, you can win it with something like 10 votes. Or some other scrawny number.) But I digress. Again, why should I care?

(V) & (Z) answer: For an individual president, approval rating serves as a sort of tracking poll, telling us how their political capital is rising or falling, and if the things they are doing are playing well/poorly with "gettable" voters.

We agree with you that comparing Joe Biden's approval ratings to those of, say, Bill Clinton or Richard Nixon is not that instructive. Although comparisons to Donald Trump's approval ratings are probably useful, as Biden and Trump are serving in the same basic political context, and knowing which of them is more popular (or, more precisely, less unpopular) likely gives insight into the 2024 election.

D.K. in Iowa City, IA, asks: The majority of Democrats do not want Joe Biden to run again however there is no strong alternative candidate. If a Democrat begins to get a lot of support and attention as a possible 2024 candidate, do you think Biden would drop out or that there would be a primary contest that Biden would lose? Who is the most likely person to do that? (I am afraid that Biden will be a weak candidate and I can't believe Democrats are going to allow him to run again.)

(V) & (Z) answer: While not impossible, we think it is very unlikely that Biden would bow out for another Democrat.

We have written many, many times about the benefits of incumbency. On the whole, an incumbent gets about 2% votes more than a non-incumbent, assuming everything else is the same. Given how close 2024 is likely to be, it's a big risk to potentially surrender that 2% of the vote.

Also important, though less discussed, is that someone who has already been elected president has already been under the world's largest microscope. They can deal with the press coverage, they don't have deal-breaking skeletons in the closet, they aren't anathema to some key constituency.

When Ron DeSantis first began making sounds about running for president, we noted that many wannabe presidents have been put under that microscope and have melted, and that we'd have to wait and see if the same happened to the Governor. Thus far, he's done an excellent impression of a lit candle.

If the Democrats toss Biden overboard, they could be left with someone who—once the heat is really on—melts. Imagine if the blue team ends up with Jeb! v2.0 or Rudy v2.0 or Gary Hart v2.0. It happens—a lot. The President knows this, and that's why he's very likely to abide by Abraham Lincoln's old wisdom: "Better to not change horses midstream."

D.C. in Brentwood, CA, asks: Regarding Sen. Tommy Tuberville's (R-AL) comments about white supremacists in the military, I'm kind of on his side, though probably not for the same reason.

When you join the military, you can be given orders that must be followed, like "work closely and rely on these people who happen to not be white." It sounds like having white supremacists taken out of their echo chambers and exposed to a diverse group of people, to whom they're forced to grow close, is a good way of de-radicalizing them. And the alternative is ostracizing them in a way that will build resentment.

What's wrong with taking this approach?

(V) & (Z) answer: It sounds good in theory, but it doesn't usually work out that way in practice because human beings are really good at compartmentalizing. And so, a white supremacist who is forced to work with a Black or Latino fellow solder might learn to respect different cultures, but is more likely to say to themselves: (1) that's one of the (few) good ones, or (2) I'm just doing what I have to do here in order to advance my goals.

Meanwhile, allowing white supremacists to stay in the armed forces gives them access to powerful weapons and to expertise that can be used to inflict great harm (how to build a bomb, how to properly use a high-powered rifle, etc.). It also allows them to network with other, like-minded people. For the worst-case scenario, see McVeigh, Timothy.

D.E. in Ashburn, VA, asks: Your item about North Carolina Republican Gov. Mark Robinson's (R) bizarre views on the Civil Rights movement sent me to Wikipedia to find out if that state elects its lieutenant governor separately from its governor. Well, they do, apparently. So if he's unelectable in a statewide election for governor, as you imply in your item, then how did he get elected as lieutenant governor? Certainly I hope you're right, but I'm puzzled about the logic here.

(V) & (Z) answer: While lieutenant governor is a statewide office, it's one of those statewide offices most people don't pay much attention to, like state auditor or insurance commissioner. In fact, it's probably the highest-ranked "most voters don't care" job on the list.

Once someone runs for one of the big jobs, however, things change. Most voters have some idea of what the candidates for governor and senator stand for, in part because campaigns for those offices are backed by vastly greater amounts of money and advertising than candidates for lesser offices. It's much harder for a nutter to sneak by.

On top of that, very, very few people say "You know, I wasn't going to vote, but I just can't allow [nutter X] to become lieutenant governor, or to become state auditor." However, there are absolutely people who will show up to vote solely in order to block a problematic governor or a problematic senator (or even some of the offices that technically are outranked by the LtG, like superintendent of public instruction).

In sum, it's entirely plausible that Robinson managed to get himself elected to an office that people don't pay much attention to, but that he'd have a much harder time winning the big chair, where people do pay attention.


R.C. in Des Moines, IA, asks: If Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) continues to resist resignation, and suffers some sort of injury or illness that put her into a type of coma from which she would likely never recover from or wake from, what mechanism is in place to replace her (or any senator to suffer such a malady)?

(V) & (Z) answer: There is no mechanism.

There have been numerous cases in the past where a senator was effectively incapacitated. Karl Mundt (R-ND) suffered a stroke and was basically non-functional for the last several years of his term. Carter Glass (D-VA) was similarly incapable for multiple years, in his case due to a heart attack. Some of Glass' constituents went to court to get the seat declared vacant and were rejected. He remained in the Senate until he died.

There has been no instance, in all of U.S. history, of a member of Congress being removed for incapacity. The only thing that is in the ballpark is that there have been cases where a member died before being sworn in, and their failure to take their oath was interpreted as having de facto vacated the seat. The most famous example of this was in 1972, when House Majority Leader Hale Boggs (D-LA) was campaigning in Alaska with Rep. Nick Begich (D-AK) and their plane disappeared shortly before the election. Both were reelected, their plane was never found, and eventually their seats were declared vacant because they didn't show up to be sworn in.

Feinstein has already been sworn in, of course, so there's no existing precedent for removing her.

S.K. in Sunnyvale, CA, asks: Why, in this third decade of the 21st century, are members of Congress (e.g. Dianne Feinstein) required to be physically present at the Capitol to cast votes? Surely a vote-by-proxy (or video chat) is feasible by now; Ruth Bader Ginsburg demonstrated that during the last few years of her life. If it's good enough for SCOTUS, why isn't it good enough for Congress?

(V) & (Z) answer: Note that, during the pandemic, the House did allow vote-by-proxy.

That said, there are two barriers keeping proxy voting from becoming a part of normal order. The first is that the current iteration of the Republican Party believes that proxy voting would help things get done, and would help Democrats pass legislation. Some GOP members think the former is a bad thing, and most members think the latter is a bad thing.

The other issue is that the Senate, in particular, is very invested in "tradition." And so, there is much resistance to proxy voting in the upper chamber, on that basis.


S.B. in Hood River, OR, asks: Assuming it is Trump vs. Biden again in 2024, will it be the first time ever for a repeat presidential matchup?

(V) & (Z) answer: Definitely not.

There are two elections that were rematches, but only one of the candidates was ever elected president: 1956 (Eisenhower vs. Stevenson), 1900 (McKinley vs. Bryan)

There is one election that was a rematch, where both candidates eventually served as president: 1828 (Jackson vs. J.Q. Adams)

There are two elections that were technically rematches, given the wonky way the Electoral College worked back then, and where both candidates eventually served as president: 1800 (J. Adams vs. Jefferson), 1792 (Washington vs. J. Adams)

There is one election that was a rematch, and where both candidates had already served as president: 1892 (Cleveland vs. B. Harrison)

J.B. in Bend, OR, asks: The recent revelations about Clarence Thomas got me wondering: who do you think is the most unethical Supreme Court Justice in history? Note, that I'm not talking about questionable legal reasoning, but "off bench" questionable practices.

(V) & (Z) answer: It has to be Abe Fortas. He was taking money for book deals and speaking opportunities at a time when that really wasn't done, and where the money was quite substantial. And he was also way, way too close to President Lyndon B. Johnson. Imagine if it came out that Brett Kavanaugh was helping Donald Trump write his speeches. Well, that's among the services that Fortas provided to Johnson (in addition to serving as LBJ's SCOTUS mole).

E.M. in Milwaukee, WI, asks: You have written that Robert E. Lee wasn't really such a great general. I've heard this before and can guess that it's because he rarely did well on the offensive and wasn't very creative on the strategic front. I've also read many paeans to U.S. Grant, focused especially on the Vicksburg campaign and his strategic insight. But there are several Union generals for whom I've never seen a really clear summary:

Can the illustrious staff historian provide suitably pithy assessments of them?

(Z) answers: (Z) has a lecture where he talks about generals, and how there are really three different ways to be a good one:

  1. Tactics: Tactics is the art of using men and materiel to win battles. This is the most visible skill, although probably the most common of the three on this list. An example of a great tactical general is Gen. George S. Patton.

  2. Strategy: Strategy is the art of using battles and other engagements to win wars. This is something that U.S. Grant excelled at (though he was also strong in the other two categories).

  3. Administration: This includes logistics and supply, but also cooperating effectively with the civilian leadership, and doing whatever is needed to keep morale up on the home front. Administration was less important before the mid-19th century, but is probably the single most valuable skill for the modern flag officer. An example of a first-rate administrative general is General of the Army George C. Marshall.

Some generals are strong in multiple categories, but it's possible to have an excellent career with mastery of just one. And with this schema in place, we'll now move on to the five generals you asked about, including rating each of them in the three categories:


N.N. in Murray, KY, asks: Hey, (Z), just wanted to get your take on LeBron James' son, Bronny, committing to USC!

(Z) answers: (Z)'s favorite UCLA player ever was... Toby Bailey. It helps that Bailey played while (Z) was an undergrad, but also key was that he played all 4 years. It's much harder to get interested in a player when they are one and done, as Bronny presumably will be. So, no real loss on that front.

As to Bronny's future, he clearly wanted to stay in L.A., which is where his family currently lives. The fact that he chose USC over UCLA (which is actually much closer to his dad's house) is instructive in terms of his future prospects. UCLA has cranked out star NBA players, from Kareem and Bill Walton to Reggie Miller and Baron Davis to Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook. The last USC player to make it to the Basketball Hall of Fame, Bill Sharman, played for the school... during World War II. Either Bronny wasn't recruited by UCLA, or he declined to go there because he couldn't be sure he would be showcased as the "star" player. Whichever it is, it does not speak to a future NBA star, or even a future college star. His future is maybe "NBA regular" or more likely "NBA journeyman." Those aren't bad outcomes, by any means, but players like that don't get a lot of attention... unless their name happens to be Bronny James.

J.D.M. in Cottonwood Shores, TX, asks: In "This Week in Freudenfreude: Whitecloud Dispels Storm Clouds," you really sounded Canadian friendly. Has the invasion already secretly succeeded?

(V) & (Z) answer: This week, the BBC rebroadcast the episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where the Romulans try (and fail) to use Spock as a front for a "Romulan Diplomatic Delegation" to Vulcan that is really a Romulan invasion force.

This week, (Z) was walking to the bank, and observed that the state government of Oregon owns a house along the route to the bank, identified by a mysterious sign that reads "Oregon E. O." and complete with several cars bearing Oregon state-vehicle plates. Is it possible Canada has already infiltrated and co-opted Oregon? Both places are pretty pinko, and have lots of trees and cold weather. And is it possible Oregon is the front for the "Canadian Diplomatic Delegation" being sent to L.A.? And is it possible that Oregon has already infiltrated and subverted West Los Angeles? These are good questions.

G.M. in Laurence Harbor, NJ, asks: Since you used the line, maybe you can explain a question I've had since law school in California. When he says "I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die," why is he serving a term in Folsom Prison a state prison in California?

(V) & (Z) answer: Well, the obvious answer is that the singer is describing an overall life of crime, and that the shooting in Reno is just one offense among many, and not the one that landed him in Folsom.

That said, we doubt that is the answer you are looking for. So, we will present you with three scenarios where a person could shoot someone in Reno and yet end up in prison in California:

There is a fourth circumstance, of course, namely that someone convicted in federal court can be sent to any federal prison in any state. However, Folsom is not a federal prison, so that does not apply here.

Reader Question of the Week

We're working through a technical issue with the mailbags; this feature will be back next week. We got a lot of very good doppelgängers! And presidential prime ministers!

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